February 8, 2011
Tuesdays with Torts Masters: Robert Rabin
An expert on torts and legislative compensation schemes, Robert Rabin is highly regarded for his extensive knowledge of the history and institutional dynamics of accident law. He is a prolific author on issues relating to the functions of the tort system and alternative regulatory schemes and is the co-editor of a classic casebook on tort law.
Professor Rabin is currently an advisor to the ongoing American Law Institute Restatement of Torts Third project and has been the program director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program on Tobacco Policy Research and Evaluation, as well as a reporter for the American Law Institute Project on Compensation and Liability for Product and Process Injuries and the American Bar Association Action Commission to Improve the Tort Liability System. He has been a member of the Stanford Law School faculty since 1970.
I recently had the chance to ask some questions about his background.
1. Why did you apply to law school? Where did you go to law school, and why did you select that school?
As I came near finishing my undergrad education, I wasn’t sure what to do next. A good friend who was planning to attend law school in the fall suggested that I take the LSAT, apply to law schools, and consider it as an option. Sounded reasonable. Subsequently, I was awarded a full tuition scholarship and so decided it was worth trying at least for a year. For a variety of personal reasons I wanted to stay in Chicago (after attending Northwestern Univ. undergrad), and went on to get my degree at Northwestern Univ. School of Law.
2. Who was your Torts professor, and what was your experience as a Torts student?
My torts professor was a visitor at Northwestern, Walter Probert, from U. of Florida. There was nothing singular about my experience in Torts; my favorite courses as a 1L were Contracts and Civil Procedure, in both of which I was especially intellectually stimulated by the classroom instruction.
3. How did you become interested in teaching law and Torts in particular?
My interest in teaching law was a carryover from the best of the courses I took: the dynamic give-and-take in the classroom was intellectually stimulating in those classes. The idea of doing research and writing on whatever topics seemed of interest to me also was very attractive. I wandered into torts teaching in the same way I wandered into law school: The dean at Wisconsin (my first academic appointment) told me that they needed a torts teacher and I was it. The course was of immediate interest to me—although my early research and writing was primarily in the administrative law area. (I had gone on to do a doctorate in political science after finishing law school.)
4. When did you begin teaching Torts, and how have the course and the Torts professoriate changed since then?
Torts was the first course I taught, back in 1966. At first, I just followed the lead of the casebook (Gregory&Kalven, a very fine casebook); I had no overarching conception of my own. As time passed, and I moved from Wisconsin to Stanford, I adopted my new colleague Marc Franklin’s casebook, which was roughly organized around the concept of tort and alternative approaches to addressing the social problem of accidental harm (with virtually no attention to intentional torts). I found this focus appealing, and over the years my approach to this framework of accident law—both in teaching and research—has become more interdisciplinary, and it has broadened to encompass both no-fault alternatives and regulation alternatives to dealing with health and safety-related injuries.
5. What do you see as your major accomplishments as a scholar and teacher?
As a teacher, I’ve tried to convey in the classroom my own intellectual and policy-related interests in torts, and more broadly, the regulation of health and safety risks. On this score, I feel a sense of satisfaction in the feedback that I’ve received from students over the years.
I’ve pursued the same themes in my scholarship. It would take a long essay to develop the particulars about what pathways I’ve taken and which of my articles and books seem to me most satisfying. Without meaning to seem self-effacing, I’d prefer to leave to others the assessment of which works of mine seem major accomplishments.
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