High honor for a thought leader in the law

SUNY Distinguished Service Professor David Engel will accept the Harry J. Kalven Jr. Prize, the Law & Society Association's highest honor in recognition of his long and continuing work in interdisciplinary legal studies at their annual meeting in Mexico City.

Legend has it, says Professor David Engel, that the first national meeting of the Law & Society Association took place in the living room of Richard D. “Red” Schwartz, UB School of Law’s dean in the early 1970s and a pioneer in the sociological study of law.

Nobody’s living room is big enough now. The Law & Society Association, the world’s premier organization for the interdisciplinary study of law, counts its membership in the thousands, reflecting the huge influence these scholarly methods have had on legal scholarship.

Some 2,400 are expected at the group’s annual meeting in June in Mexico City. It’s there that Engel will accept the association’s highest honor, the Harry J. Kalven Jr. Prize, in recognition of his long and continuing work in interdisciplinary legal study.        

“Throughout more than four decades,” the official announcement says, “Professor Engel’s fields of scholarly inquiry have expanded to include a wide array of issues in the United States, Asia and beyond, including the examination of disputing practices and behavior, legal consciousness and legal meaning-making, rights as social practice, and the gap between official law and legal practice.”

That’s a fancy way of saying that Engel looks at how the legal system actually works in various societies, including our own – thinking about how custom, social norms and belief structures interact with black-letter law. A good example is his most recent book, The Myth of the Litigious Society: Why We Don’t Sue (University of Chicago Press), which argues that U.S. culture isn’t as litigious as it’s often said to be, and examines why most U.S. injury victims never lodge a claim against their injurers.

Engel, who previously served as president of the Law & Society Association, also has been a thought leader globally, working especially to build an international research network among scholars in the Pacific Rim countries. (About a quarter of the association’s members live outside the United States.) He recently helped to establish a new Asia-focused scholarly organization headquartered in Japan – the Asian Law and Society Association – and he serves as a founding co-editor of the Asian Journal of Law and Society, published by Cambridge University Press.

“The Kalven Prize is especially meaningful to me, because this is the organization that helped shape my identity as a scholar,” says Engel, who has taught at the School of Law since 1981. “Attending their meetings, and reading the literature that Law and Society scholars were publishing in the 1960s and 1970s, led me to a new way of formulating my own scholarship and then finding colleagues with whom I could share my ideas.”

He also traces his scholarly roots to his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand before attending law school. As he worked to train young teachers and assess the educational needs of Thai communities, he took notice of how official government programs worked in practice at ground level. Later, as a newly-minted law graduate, he applied these same insights to the study of Thai courts and civil litigation practices. “You could see that the law was operating in ways that could not be explained just by reading legal rules and court opinions,” Engel says. “So if you wanted to understand what was really happening, you had to look at the surrounding culture and developments outside the courtroom.”

Back in the States, that made him look at the U.S. legal system differently as well – an experience that he says informed a whole generation of scholars who, like him, had spent time abroad in those years of growing international engagement and development activities.

For Engel, it has spawned a lifetime’s worth of inquiry. His early essay “The Oven Bird’s Song: Insiders, Outsiders, and Personal Injuries in an American Community,” published in the Law & Society Review in 1984, has had such a lasting influence that it was recently recognized with a conference and a forthcoming edited volume of essays.

The Kalven Prize is not intended to be a lifetime achievement award –it recognizes current as well as past scholarship. Engel notes wryly that he hopes it won’t be a capstone to his Law and Society career. He’s already working on his next book – on relational injuries in American tort law – and he is increasingly involved in training young scholars, especially in Asia.  In addition, he accepts many invitations to visit universities in the U.S. and abroad to talk with students and faculty about Law and Society research.  With colleagues at the National University of Singapore, he is also organizing a regular series of workshops for junior Law and Society scholars, working to encourage interdisciplinary legal research and strengthen international bonds among American and Asian colleagues.