Deep in the basement of Stanford’s Robert Crown Law Library is a large conference table, one among many covered with dozens of boxes, all crammed with fraying files and papers—the forgotten evidence of legal battles long since lost and won. But they are historical treasures to Lawrence M. Friedman, Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law, who rescues them from recycling bins across California whenever he can. “Legal records are amazing social documents if you know how to read them,” says Friedman, one of the nation’s leading legal history scholars. “County courthouses run out of space and just get rid of them, unless they’re very old. But history doesn’t stop. It marches on. So what’s not so very old today is tomorrow.” Boxes of Alameda County civil records from the 1950s and 1960s. Criminal files from the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, dated 1922. Last wills and testaments from San Bernardino County, circa 1964. The list goes on of the many files kept in the library and in Friedman’s office. These documents fascinate Friedman. Providing stories of both the legal system and the seemingly inconsequential individuals involved in it, they represent a snapshot of the legal process at various periods of time. Part lawyer, part historian, part sociologist, Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his seminal work Crime and Punishment in American History (1993), a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the recipient of enough awards and honors to fill several pages. He is one of the most frequently cited legal historians in the world. A quintessential scholar and teacher who this year will celebrate 40 years on Stanford Law School’s faculty, Friedman is still going strong and his research is as relevant as ever.

Friedman’s start in the legal academy came by chance. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a liberal arts degree, he stayed on for a law degree because, he says, he couldn’t think of anything else to do.

“Nobody in my family had been to college. So the idea of going for a PhD in ancient Middle Eastern languages, something I was very interested in, just wasn’t in my range of experience,” he says. “So I thought law school—why not?”

He became interested in legal history while pursuing his LLM, studying with Max Rheinstein at Chicago. “He was a wonderful man—very learned, very sweet. We studied British legal history because back then that was the only thing historical that was ever studied,” he says. Friedman later abandoned study of the British system for reasons he now calls “quaint and dated.”

“When I was growing up only the very wealthy traveled and I thought how can I study the British legal system when I’ll never be in Britain,” he says. “As it turns out I’ve since been to Britain maybe a hundred times—the first, courtesy of the U.S. Army. But that was before jet planes, and the idea of overseas travel was really quite foreign.”

After law school and a stint in the Army, he joined a Chicago law firm where he specialized in trusts and estates. But he aspired to teaching and was thrilled when, after two years, a friend approached him with an opportunity. The friend had been teaching at St. Louis University School of Law and wanted to go on a leave of absence, which would only be granted if he found a replacement. He asked Friedman to be his replacement. “I said ‘I’m the guy for you!’” recalls Friedman. “I wound up staying there for four years teaching commercial law, about which I knew absolutely nothing.” He and his wife, Leah, settled into life in St. Louis and both of their children were born there. But when the University of Wisconsin made him an offer in 1961, he knew he had to accept.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to not only teach at a great law school but also to work under the sheltering wings of J. Willard Hurst, who was and is the greatest American legal historian that’s ever lived,” says Friedman. “In fact, he created the field. And he was a very wise, selfless, and thoughtful mentor to many, many people, including myself.”

Then following a year at Stanford Law School as a visiting professor, Friedman and his family decided on one more move—this time westward to Palo Alto, where the warm climate and up-and-coming law school drew him. He joined the faculty in 1968 and soon started research on A History of American Law, first published in 1973 and now in its third edition.

“It was a case of fools rushing in,” he says, of the monumental task he took on with his first text. “People said that you couldn’t write a general history of American law. I was young and foolish and I thought, why can’t you? I’ve done projects like that a few times now.”

His Crime and Punishment in American History is likewise an example of a book that he couldn’t believe hadn’t been written before. “You’d think with all the interest in crime and a dozen books on Lizzie Borden’s case alone that someone would have written it before me. But no,” he says.

Since coming to Stanford Law, Friedman has witnessed the school’s steady rise up the ranks to its current top-tier position. “When I got here, there were faculty members who hadn’t produced any scholarship in years. And while the students have always been bright, today many more are interested in scholarship and go into the academy. It’s more international, more interdisciplinary. It’s just a completely different place now,” he says.

Adding to what he calls today’s “cosmopolitan” atmosphere at the law school is the growing number of advanced legal degree programs for foreign students, one of which he co-founded with Tom Heller, Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies, in 1996: the Stanford Program in International Legal Studies (SPILS). Today, Friedman is the director of the program, co-teaches a seminar for all SPILS students, and is actively involved in the students’ research and education. “I guess I’m more proud of that program than I am of anything else I do,” he says.

While his scholarship focuses on American law, his keen interest in the world outside this country’s borders has made him something of an ambassador for his discipline. He travels widely, regularly delivering lectures at universities abroad. Of the six honorary degrees he holds, three are from foreign universities. And many of his publications have been translated into various languages which include Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. Friedman encourages scholars from around the world through SPILS, and he was a key organizer of the inaugural International Junior Faculty Forum, held at Stanford Law School in October 2008.

The large auditorium fills with sleepy undergrads taking their seats—computers at the ready as they wait for the professor. Friedman approaches the lectern and begins.

“We were talking about a shopping center in Santa Clara County. The Pruneyard. Do you know why it’s called the Pruneyard? Before this was Silicon Valley, it was an agricultural center and the area was full of fruit trees. The Supreme Court decided the Pruneyard case…” He goes on, explaining the landmark case that pitted the shopping center against several local high school students assembling for the purpose of collecting signatures, and then launches into a lecture on the history of free speech in American law, the undergrads hanging on his every word. Friedman started teaching the undergraduate class, Introduction to American Law, in 1985.

“Law in all its forms—Congress, the courts, police—is ubiquitous in this country and extraordinarily important. Yet because legal training is a graduate program, the typical undergraduate student, even at an elite university, will not study the law,” says Friedman, who, in addition to this class, still carries a full teaching load at the law school. “I thought our undergraduate students should have this class, so I introduced it with support from the political science and American studies departments.”

Friedman’s office is a work in progress, or many works in progress, with most available space covered with stacks of files and books.

“I’ve written or edited around 27 books and something like 200 articles. But who’s counting?” he says.

He waves at the piles of folders and stacked books in his office. “My most recent work, called Dead Hand, will be published soon. It’s a social history of wills and trusts, a fairly short book that I enjoyed working on. So I’ve never abandoned wills and trusts but came full circle back to them,” he says. Within the circle of Friedman’s expertise are many vortexes, each demonstrating a broad range of interests. And curiosity. For Friedman is, above all else, a great thinker. What can coroners’ reports tell us about our society and the law that governs us? How do wills and estates change over time? Can we explain spikes in crime? How have our views on issues such as equality, privacy, and marriage changed and why? He smiles just asking the questions. And he’s lived long enough to have witnessed many changes firsthand.

“I joke to my students that I’m now old enough to be considered a primary source,” he says. “Growing up in Chicago, there were no black policemen, no black bus drivers, no black shoppers at Marshall Fields,” he says. “Yet in my lifetime so much has changed. We now have an African-American president. It’s amazing.”

His enthusiasm for the law, history, and society is contagious. After embracing a new area of legal scholarship some 50 years ago, Friedman is now one of the icons of the discipline. Today, young scholars seek him out; they aid him with his research and cheerfully help him sift through those boxes of old files heaped on tables in the law library basement and in his office. And some are lucky enough to gain a credit in one of the many, many papers and books he has written. But, indeed, who’s counting? Very likely, the thousands of scholars throughout the world who regularly cite Friedman.