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August 14, 2008

Law and humor at Harvard Law School

You may have heard of the Law and Economics school. I gather there's now a Law and Humor school, too.

A lawyer in my office recently sent around this link to a speech given by Harvard Law School professor Daryl Levinson upon being presented with an award for teaching. The speech was given in June, so don't start complaining to me that "it's old" or whatever. I know. It's old.

Professor Levinson, who teaches constitutional law, speaks about the ten ideas that "explain virtually all of law." If you went to law school at a name-brand institution, where it's a sin of the first order to teach anything practical, you may well recognize some or all of these ideas.

When I was in law school, the professors we enjoyed were generally the performers. Levinson has a little of the performer in him, but he actually seems fairly shy. The drawback to that is that while he has a few amusing lines, he sometimes trips over himself in the delivery -- probably what I would do myself if I were trying to give the same speech.

You can click on the link at the bottom of this page to listen or try this direct link (Real Player required). I'd skip the first few minutes, with the student introduction and Levinson's thank yous, which go well beyond gratitude and modesty into full-blown barfitation.

If you don't feel like listening to the whole talk, consider the following highlight, found at about 11:40 in the video:

Idea number 6: legal institutions and what they're good for. We learn over and over again that legislatures are good at democracy; courts are good at impartial application of the rule of law; and agencies are good at technocratic expertise. As the Harvard legal process tradition teaches us, once we know what each institution is good for, our job is simply to match up the right institutional decisionmaker to the relevant decisionmaking task, which we can do using neutral and objective reasoning. In practice, this means: First we figure out which one of the possible decisionmaking institutions is run by the Democrats. [Laughter.] That's the one we want. [Laughter and applause.] Or don't want. I want to keep it as fair and balanced as your classes here no doubt were.
I suppose you could read this as a subtle dig at the political monolith at Harvard, but more likely, it's just an acknowledgment of shared group values. That seems to be the interpretation favored by the audience, in any event, judging from the applause. Either way, it's amusing, and I choose to apply the former interpretation.