J. Larson Tributes: Macaulay, Mertz, Mitchell, Nice, Nourse

From Stewart Macaulay — University of Wisconsin Law School

I’ll always have a large collection of wonderful memories of my friend Jane Larson.   She was a scholar who left her law school office to test elegant theories in the all-too-real world of ordinary people….


Her “Free Markets Deep in the Heart of Texas” challenges the claim that the world would be better if governments just went away.   She looked at a place where this had happened, and she found that none of the theorists who made this argument would want to live there.   I’ve quoted a statement of hers several times:   “Viewed from the perspective of legality and equality, the subject of informality is a minefield.   Even so, lawyers and legal scholars must take the lead in formulating policy responses to informality.”

I got to watch her as a teacher about two years ago.   Jane joined me to conduct my Sociology of Law seminar when we dealt with the police response to domestic violence.   She had written about these problems of informality, and we had a spirited discussion.   When the class ended, the students applauded Jane.

A few years ago, a number of people from the Law School attended a Sonny Rollins concert at the Overture Center in Madison.   We expected a fine evening from Rollins, one of the masters of jazz.   We got more than this.   It was one of those rare special performances when a great artist went beyond anything we could have expected.   I drove Jane home, and the two of us knew that we had experienced something truly special.    She pushed me toward more modern jazz, and I tried, with some success, to turn her attention to Duke Ellington.

When Jane was at the top of her game, she was fun to be with or talk to on the telephone. She was smart and she had a great sense of humor.   I loved listening to her puncture balloons and expose stupidity and greed in high places.    Of course, she died far too young, and we cannot bring her back.   But she left many good memories behind.


From Beth Mertz  — University of Wisconsin Law School

How to do justice to a life cut short, a scholar whose work was left unfinished, a colleague and friend who was unable to complete much of what she once imagined doing?  As news of Jane’s death has spread across the law school world, many in our community are struggling to make sense of this loss – to find meaning in something that seems senseless.

I find guidance in Jane’s steadfast commitment to those without voice – to the people whom law is supposed to serve, but who are so often erased.   I vividly remember her scorn for the cowardice that silences us when we should speak out – a cowardice that somehow does not automatically diminish when we have more power and privilege.  Oddly, the more we walk the corridors of power, the harder it sometimes becomes to speak out – to question accepted untruths, to unsettle the smug certainty that can accompany privilege.  Jane had many opportunities to take an easier road, to shortcut the truth — and she refused.  As a junior faculty member, I was inspired and stunned by the risks she took.   It is so tempting to fit in, to say the things that will earn you prizes, to spend your time on things that bring renown.  It is harder to do labor-intensive fieldwork to find out what law looks like on the ground.  It is harder to spend hours counseling students who feel they don’t fit in, or mentoring colleagues who are tempted to leave the academy because it is such an alien place.  It is harder to break the mold in your thinking, fighting rather than swimming with the tide.  But without people like Jane, who are willing to do that kind of work, the law school world is in danger of losing touch with its core mission and ideals.  We need the people who keep us honest, although we too often fail to hear or honor them.

Happily, Jane found a home and a voice at Wisconsin, where the ideals she cherished were shared by many in the wider law school community.  Her work in feminist legal history, her anthropological vantage on poverty and land use, her burning desire to build a more just legal system, continued.  To these concerns she added a new project, one on which a number of us worked with her, which became known as the “New Legal Realism.”  Jane’s vision was a key impetus for this project.  With her characteristic combination of intellect and practical wisdom, she challenged many of us to think about why some kinds of empirical knowledge go unheard within the legal academy.  How can it be that decades of empirical sociolegal research focused on “law-in-action” remain largely ignored by law professors?  And why is it that the kinds of scholarship that can take us closest to the lived realities of ordinary people in our society are so often slighted in the legal academy?  Surely a bunch of law professors with expertise in social science could think this puzzle through, could push the law to use all of the methods and findings available to address difficult problems.  And surely we owed it to our profession to take our best shot at addressing this puzzle – however quixotic the effort might seem.

And so, in characteristic Jane-fashion, she (along with a number of others) helped to move a group of us into yet one more effort to bring theory into action, empirical knowledge into practice.  We knew that we were working without many of the usual prerequisites for success.  But we had the power of ideas (she would remind us), and deep roots in interdisciplinary scholarship, and thus an openness to inclusion – multiple methods, multiple perspectives, multiple fields, multiple voices.  And we had Jane’s voice nudging us on – scornful of the cowardice that silences us when taking up unpopular causes, laughing at the smallness of academics who take themselves so seriously that they stop trying to break the mold.

Thus we take this moment to honor our dear friend and inspiring colleague, on the pages of a project that she had hoped to see through to fruition.  These tributes contain stories from just a few of the people whose lives Jane touched – students, colleagues, teachers, and mentors — stories of courage, humor, tenacity, and commitment to justice. I do not mean to canonize Jane or to over-idealize her.  As she would doubtless want us to add, like all of us she had her faults – she was very human in a number of ways. But I will carry Jane with me when I speak up in moments of doubt and fear, when I swim against the tide, when I try one more time to give voice to a point-of-view that no one wants to hear.  If we can continue to remember and to listen and to speak out in these ways, Jane’s own voice will not be silenced – her work will live on.


From Thomas Mitchell –University of Wisconsin Law School

I came to Madison in 1996 to pursue an LL.M. as part of the William H. Hastie Fellowship program.  It was my good fortune to have had Jane Larson assigned to be my advisor.  To be candid, I found our early meetings to be somewhat intimidating.  It was obvious from our first meeting that Jane had a brilliant mind and that she would be completely committed to helping me develop as a legal scholar.  In our regular meetings she would ask me one penetrating question after another — many of which I simply did not understand — about my research and about drafts of different chapters of my thesis. As a result, I often had to do additional research just to grasp the concepts which formed the basis of the questions she had asked me.  I have kept copies of her markups on drafts of various chapters from my thesis and am amazed to this day at the breadth, detail, and rigor of her comments.  My experience with Jane is not unique.   At Wisconsin, Jane was a strong and consistent supporter of the Hastie Fellowship program and served as advisor to other Hastie fellows including Stacy Leeds, now Dean at the University of Arkansas School of Law.  Still others who were then aspiring law professors or law professors in the early part of their careers benefited greatly from Jane’s mentoring.

Jane did not simply live in her head, but also sought out ways to help those whose problems she studied who lacked power or influence.  She was the initial faculty advisor for a unique externship program that was jointly run by our law school and the University of Wisconsin’s Land Tenure Center. That program placed law students for the summer in poor, mostly rural communities so that those students could assist people who had a variety of challenges with respect to property ownership.  She encouraged others who yearned to be similarly engaged but who were worried about the potential negative professional costs they might suffer from doing anything but conventional academic research.  I hope that her work will inspire many others to be engaged scholars who have the courage to do work that is not only of high quality but is also meaningful to people both inside and outside of legal academia.


From Julie Nice — University of San Francisco School of Law

I had the great fortune of spending time with Jane when she arrived to begin teaching at Northwestern during my clinical teaching fellowship.  Everyone was abuzz about Jane’s astonishing analysis of the tort of seduction.  During this time a rather lively group of students and teachers were meeting regularly to discuss law and politics as part of a group we called Feminists for Social Change.  Jane wasn’t much of a joiner.  But whenever she participated in these events, her presence in the room was palpable.  We could feel her there, listening intently, observing carefully, and always thinking deeply.  When she spoke up, which wasn’t often, her gentle cadence disguised a typically trenchant analysis.  Time stopped while everyone absorbed whatever idea Jane had posed. This phenomenon recurred several years later when Martha Ertman and I persuaded her to come to Denver for a symposium. When Jane spoke, again, everyone listened, relishing each of her generous insights.  And when she threw back her head in joyful laughter at our house party afterward, all seemed right with the world.  I wonder now if Jane knew how much we all admired her.  I don’t know the details of her personal journey.  But many of us know the toll it takes to be a pioneer, opening space for others to follow.  Maybe Jane was not a joiner, but she was very much a pioneer.  She could make time stop.  She could make space open.  Without Jane here, all is definitely not right with the world.  Perhaps the best tribute to her pioneering spirit is for those of us who follow to pass Jane’s gifts forward.


From Victoria Nourse — University of Wisconsin Law School

Jane Larson was a brilliant individual and an energetic founding member of new legal realism.   Her creativity was exemplified in her insights on a variety of foundational issues in tort and property law, among other subjects.   Her work on the border between Texas and Mexico confronting living conditions far below the poverty line exemplifies the “law in action” strain of new legal realism in which one learns to engage real life problems from studying the problems “on the ground.”   Her intellectual spirit and bravery will be missed.


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