Photo of Robert W. Gordon
Photo by Colin Clark

Apparently, some people just can’t stay away. Robert W. Gordon, professor of law, is the latest member of an elite group of academics whose members, having spent time in the East, have seen the (sun)light and rejoined the Stanford Law School faculty.

Gordon began his academic career at SUNY Buffalo Law School, followed by a stint at University of Wisconsin Law School, from which SLS recruited him in 1982. “I was part of the lesser-known raid that included Lawrence Friedman and Bob Rabin,” he recalls.

And for 12 years, Gordon taught his way around the Stanford Law curriculum. “My scholarship focused on legal history, but you can’t make a living teaching legal history. I needed a ‘day job.’ ”

Gordon’s day job included teaching Contracts, Administrative Law, Evidence, Commercial Law, Corporations, Legislation, and First Amendment. And interspersed with these “real” courses, he taught courses on legal history. “I was a real utility infielder,” he says.

When the opportunity to teach at Yale Law School presented itself in 1995, Gordon couldn’t resist. “I had aging family members on the East Coast and Yale was a very exciting place.”

Gordon was particularly attracted to the large concentration of future academics among the Yale student body and the dynamic intellectual community. “At the time, you couldn’t get that combination anywhere else.”

In fact, one of Gordon’s favorite roles at Yale was as an advisor to students who were seeking academic positions. It’s on his “to-do” list of activities he wants to pursue at Stanford Law.

“Larry Kramer is committed to fostering legal scholarship, and that’s a new emphasis since I was last here.”

Indeed, Gordon observes that a lot has changed in 15 years. “Legal education used to be criticized as being neither practical nor theoretical—it was merely scholastic. It didn’t adequately prepare students to practice or to think reflectively about law’s role in society.”

Now, he says, legal education—especially at Stanford—is much better at addressing both components. As support, he points to the quality and depth of the clinical program at SLS, combined with the school’s commitment to mentoring legal academics, as well as the genuinely interdisciplinary curriculum.

So, is that why he returned?

“Well, it’s certainly a big factor. This is a very exciting place to be right now. The faculty and students are great and, like Yale, it’s small and intellectually vital. And then there are all the Bay Area amenities, and the fact that we have lots of friends here.”

Gordon also will have time to pursue his scholarship or, in his words, his “career-long obsessions.”

In addition to exploring the use of history in legal argument, Gordon is interested in telling the story of law as a public profession.

“One of the paradoxes of the American legal profession,” Gordon says, “is that it’s the most client-centered and it has also done the most to build, reform, and maintain public institutions.”

Gordon notes, however, that in the last few decades the profession has become much more focused on making money than on public service. “I’m interested in figuring out what made that public role of lawyers an attractive, valuable, and practical option for making a living and how we can we restore that.”

But that doesn’t mean that Gordon has forsaken his day job. In addition to teaching an interdisciplinary legal history workshop (winter quarter) with history professor Tamar Herzog, Gordon is teaching Contracts (fall quarter) and Evidence (spring quarter).

Gordon exudes enthusiasm for his teaching and his students. In particular he notes, “1Ls are so energetic, motivated, and imaginative. They are not completely socialized into the system, so are open to everything and can look at the alternatives.”

And those sound a lot like the qualities that Gordon himself 
brings to Stanford Law.