An Interview with Professor Gordon Hylton

[Editor’s Note: This blog is the first in a series of interviews with faculty and staff at the Law School.] 

Professor Gordon Hylton is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he majored in History and English Literature. He holds a J.D. and M.A. in History from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University. Following law school, he clerked for Justice Albertis S. Harrison and Chief Justice Lawrence I’Anson of the Virginia Supreme Court and worked for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. He joined the Marquette faculty in 1995, after teaching at IIT Chicago Kent College of Law and Washington University. He has also taught as a visiting professor at Washington and Lee University and the University of Virginia and served as a Fulbright Lecturer in Law in Ukraine. His current research interests are in the history of the legal profession, constitutional history, and the legal history of American sports.

Question: What motivated you to pursue a law degree and ultimately teach law?

When I was a senior in college, my plan was to go to graduate school in history. However, the job market for historians was supposedly terrible, and I was intrigued by the idea of being a lawyer, even though there had never been a lawyer in my family. I ended up splitting the difference by enrolling in a joint law and history program at the University of Virginia, in my home state.

After three years at UVA, I had completed my law degree and the coursework for a master’s degree in history. At that point, I accepted a clerkship with the Virginia Supreme Court, and while clerking, I finished my master’s thesis. During that year, I decided that I wanted to be a history professor rather than a lawyer, so I enrolled in the History of American Civilization program at Harvard to work on a Ph.D. Although I planned to concentrate on American legal history as my major field, I felt I was leaving law for a career as a history professor.

However, while in graduate school, I decided that what I really wanted to do was to teach in a law school. I took a course called “Preparing for Law Teaching” at Harvard Law School, and after teaching for a year as an Instructor in the Harvard History Department, I entered law teaching at Chicago-Kent.

Question: You also have a Ph.D. in history. What relationship do you see between the study of law and history?

Law can be, and is, studied from a variety of angles, including the historical. Historians try to explain why and how the present turned out the way it did. Studying how the law developed is an excellent way of understanding why the law is the way that it is and why that it sometimes needs to change. Lawyers who understand legal history have a much more comprehensive understanding of the system in which they operate.

Question: Which lawyer from history do you most admire and why?

I have long been fascinated by the professional notion that lawyers properly suppress their own moral and ethical judgments in the name of the zealous representation of their clients. That may be an essential component of the adversary system, but it does not seem like a very good formula for greatness. Lawyers are most heroic, I believe, when they transcend the adversary system and stand on their own beliefs.

I don’t really have a “lawyer from history that I admire most,” but if I had to pick someone it would probably be a lawyer turned politician like Abraham Lincoln or Huey Long. I do think that Thomas More is the most overrated lawyer in history.

Question: You grew up in Virginia and have spent time in both the Midwest and the East. Do you see similarities or differences between how the three parts of the country approach the practice of law?

I think there probably was a time when there were regional differences in the way law was practiced, a la My Cousin Vinny. However, the days in which lawyers wore blue suits in Boston, brown suits in Chicago, and white suits in Houston are pretty much over. I grew up in a town of 2000 people that was the largest community in a 25-mile radius, so I have always been interested in the practice of law in small towns and rural areas. There are still great differences between the practice of law in small towns and major metropolitan areas, but geographic region per se no longer seems to make much difference.

Question: You have a genuine interest in baseball and sports in general. Do you see a connection between baseball and the law? What attracts people to both?

For people who are interested in law, organized baseball represents a fascinatingly self-contained legal system. The sport is like a legal matryoshka doll—one of those Russian dolls where every time you open up the doll, there is another doll inside. The baseball industry is governed by a hodgepodge of statutes and court interpretations. Inside the industry, the game is governed by a mesh of contractual agreements and other restraints of trade; the standard player contract that ties players to teams is like a miniature constitution; and on the field the game is defined by a legal-code-like rule book and presided over by judicial figures known as umpires. And then there are the unwritten rules. Following baseball from a legal perspective is like taking a course in comparative law.

Question: What is your favorite class to teach?

My favorite part of law teaching is teaching first year students in their first semester of law school. At that point no one has received a grade or a rank in class, so everyone is even. Plus, first semester law students almost always do the assigned reading and usually show up for class ready and willing to grapple with the material. I have taught first year, first semester courses in Property, Torts, Jurisprudence, and the Legal Profession at five different law schools, and the experience has been uniformly enjoyable.

Among upper level courses, my favorite class to teach is Trusts and Estates, because the entire course revolves around the themes of death and greed, which give the course a real literary quality.

Question: What advice would you give to a student starting law school?

I think it is important to begin law school with a commitment to being in law school. In spite of everything that has happened in the past several years, law school is still the right place to be for people who have decided that they really want to be lawyers. However, it may not be the best place to find out what one wants to do in life or to simply extend one’s undergraduate years.

Question: What is your favorite book?

I don’t know exactly why, but I find myself re-reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises at least every few years. The same is also true for Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I am still working my way through the Gospel of Luke and the Epistle of James.

Question: What is the greatest strength and the greatest challenge facing the American legal system today?

The greatest strength of the American legal system is its unquestioned commitment to the rule of law. The greatest challenge is maintaining the public faith in the fairness and openness of the system. We really do need to figure out a way to make legal services more readily available to middle- and low-income Americans.



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