The editors of the blog asked several law school faculty to write about the people who have been the most formative figures in their careers as legal educators. This fourth submission in the series is by Professor Chad M. Oldfather.
The path I took to law school was direct in the sense that I went right from college. But in more important senses it was as indirect as could be. Growing up as (what for the sake of simplicity we’ll call) a farm kid I knew no lawyers, and nothing of the world of business. “Work,” as I understood the term, implied getting dirt under one’s fingernails. My momma wasn’t gonna let me be no cowboy, but neither could the prospect of me being a doctor or lawyer or such have figured too prominently in her plans. The world of professionals was, to me, a great unknown, an uncharted land inhabited by a whole different sort of person.
All of which means simply that I’ve had a greater need for formative professional influences than the average bear. Like everyone else, I needed to learn how to be a lawyer in the sense of developing the necessary skills. But to a greater extent than most everyone else I also needed to recognize and then internalize the norms of professional interaction. Put differently, I knew there’d be unwritten rules. What I didn’t know was how they’d be different from the ones I grew up with.
I had the great good fortune to begin my career as a clerk to Judge Jane Roth.
It was a tremendous place to start. Judge Roth has what I regard as the ideal judicial temperament, approaching each case on its own terms, with modesty, and with no effort to push some grand agenda. Perhaps most importantly, as my first professional boss she demonstrated to me that there is no conflict between having an impish sense of humor and an important job that one takes seriously.
To be sure, many of my own law professors influenced the way I teach. Just as parents find themselves echoing their own parents, so have I found myself at the front of the classroom repeating some of the lines of those who taught me. At times it has felt like playing a role, as if I were fielding a question in the character of one of my professors. That happens less often now after a decade at the front of the room. When it does, I am almost always channeling (what is undoubtedly the poor person’s version of) Mike Klarman, who has served as an important teacher, mentor, and friend.
In most important senses, though, the most formative influences on me were the lawyers with whom I had the good fortune to spend my early years in practice. I had a couple fancy lines on my resume that helped to get me in the door at Faegre & Benson, but once inside it quickly became clear that all that mattered was whether I was a good lawyer. My colleagues – and it pretty quickly became clear that I was working “with” them rather than “for” them – came from the Ivy League and the Big Ten, cities and small towns, money as old as it gets in Minneapolis and no money at all. They taught me how to be a lawyer – that one must both sweat the details and be creative, that the law is only a piece of the puzzle and not the puzzle itself, and that ours is at bottom a service industry.
And they served as models in a broader sense as well. From them I learned that one of the worst sins a person can commit is to boast or otherwise take himself too seriously. That, if a mid-level associate happens to be in the midst of a fairly involved negotiation at the time he’s scheduled to be leaving on vacation, the appropriate thing for a senior lawyer to do is walk into the conference room and tell that mid-level associate that the senior lawyer will take it from there because it’s important to have a life. That even if you’ve never once had to worry about money you still drive a mid-market American car to the Park & Ride lot from which you take the bus to work. That the most important thing is serving your clients, and that to that extent at least we are all in this together.
I do not mean to suggest that it was all happy all the time, that I did not have my complaints, or that there aren’t ways in which I’ve cherry-picked and otherwise whitewashed my memories the way we so often do. But from this remove I’m able to appreciate the good lessons I learned more than I could at the time. And those, it seems, are the ones worth remembering.
I could go on. There have been others who have influenced me, both as a teacher and as a scholar. I haven’t even mentioned my clients and students, all of whom have helped to shape me in important ways. But so much of who I am as a lawyer and a law professor is a product of my time with Tom Mayerle, John Wheaton, Scott Anderegg, Matt Bogart, Jim Dueholm, Charlie Ferrell, Terri Simard, Becky Rom, Tom Crosby, Gary Gandrud, and everyone else who spent their days on the 25th floor of the (then) Norwest Center. I only imperfectly reflect what I learned, and I struggle with how to bring some of these lessons into the classroom. But I will, I am certain, never again have the privilege of working with a group of people whom I so uniformly like and admire. And I am honored to continue to count them among my friends.