Professor John H. Schlegel.

UB Distinguished Professor John Henry “Jack” Schlegel joined the UB law faculty in 1973.

A little laughter, a lot of thought

The newest issue of the Buffalo Law Review devotes itself to the teaching, scholarship and unique personality of the School of Law’s longest-serving active faculty member.

“Serious Fun – A conference with & around Schlegel!,” the Law Review’s second issue of the academic year, is at the printer now and accessible online here. It collects nine original essays by colleagues and interlocutors of UB Distinguished Professor John Henry Schlegel, a foreword, and a closing reflection by Schlegel himself.

Schlegel joined the UB Law faculty in 1973. Generations of UB Law students have experienced his broadly informed yet intensely personal engagement with how law works in our society, and come away challenged to look in new ways at the law and its practice.

The issue grew out of a planned conference in Schlegel’s honor, originally scheduled for spring 2020 and now set to take place this fall, organized by Louis A. Del Cotto Professor David A. Westbrook and The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy. (Typically, papers presented at a conference are then gathered for subsequent publication; the order is reversed in this case because of the coronavirus postponement. Schlegel had insisted that no papers be read at the conference, so they would have been circulated in advance anyway.)

“Serious Fun” as a theme was Schlegel’s idea. “One of the things that Jack has been talking about, and also has embodied, is a sense of intellectual playfulness,” Westbrook says. “Keeping alive a sense of play, of adventure, of possibility, has been a huge contribution of Jack’s, and it’s been very important, particularly to younger faculty, who are under professional pressure to conform.”

That playfulness is evident in Schlegel’s work, with titles like “More Crabs, Still No Barrel” and “Does Duncan Kennedy Wear Briefs or Boxers?”

Not to be outdone, contributors to the Law Review issue share their own encounters with the professor – personal stories that serve as springboards to a serious appraisal of his life’s work. Contributors include four colleagues from UB School of Law, SUNY Distinguished Professor James Gardner, UB Distinguished Professor Emeritus Alfred Konefsky and Professor Matthew Steilen (Westbrook wrote the Foreword), as well as scholars from Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, Georgetown, Stanford and Berkeley.

A light touch can’t obscure, though, Schlegel’s influence on the way we see two critical moments in the U.S. legal academy. “Jack has established a dual view of probably the most important legal movement in 20th century legal history, American Legal Realism,” Westbrook says. “In addition, Buffalo was one of the early centers of Critical Legal Studies, and Jack was both a participant in and an observer and chronicler of that movement. Nobody has done a better job of providing both an inside and an outside view of the whole.”

Kevin Hartnett Jr., a third-year law student who is editor-in-chief of the Buffalo Law Review, inherited the Schlegel publication project from his predecessor in that role. “I was super excited about picking that up as one of our early issues,” he says, “and I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project. It’s an important project for the Law Review and the school.”

The “Serious Fun” theme, he says, was fitting, because “you could tell the authors had serious fun writing it. There are a lot of thought-provoking pieces about legal history and methods of teaching, really thoughtful scholarship written by some high-level authors. But the theme of the issue allowed the authors a little more flexibility to write about interesting topics. They cited their experiences with Professor Schlegel, told some stories, then in really crafty ways tied that into the scholarship.”

Hartnett says he never took a course from Schlegel and had only one encounter with him, back in his first year of law school. “I was leaving O’Brian and there was someone behind me, so I held the door for him, then saw it was Professor Schlegel. And that turned into a conversation that lasted from O’Brian all the way to the parking lot. It was almost as if I entered the conversation halfway through. Just talking with him, even as a 1L, I knew that I had ‘brushed up against greatness.’”[1]

Deconstructing the Muppets

photo of Professor Alfred Konefsky.

UB Distinguished Professor Emeritus Alfred S. Konefsky

Excerpt from Professor Alfred Konefsky’s contribution to the issue, “John Henry Schlegel and the Muppet Show”:

We started talking on the phone regularly in the late 1970s when we both realized that one evening a week we both sat down with our kids in our respective homes to watch The Muppet Show. …

Precisely one minute after the show ended each week, the phone would ring and what became our ritual would start. It was Schlegel asking, “What did you think?” And so the serious process of deconstruction would begin as we walked through the show again. What did we like or not like? What worked or did not work? And invariably we focused on two characters. Not Oscar the Grouch (as one might expect from Schlegel) or the Count (who found his way into a title of a Schlegel article). They were Sesame Street characters anyway. But Statler and Waldorf, the two elderly curmudgeons seated in a theater box overlooking the stage, who spewed totally dismissive comments about what they were watching. They were nothing but critical of what they saw, throwing off one-liners eviscerating what they were witnessing on the show though they never left and kept watching, endlessly entertained and contemptuous. They would occasionally ask each other why they continued to observe the show, and they could be critical of themselves for not fleeing. We both found a natural affinity for them.

1. See Robert W. Gordon, The Schlegelians v. the Langdellians on Legal Education, 69 Buff. L. Rev. 87, 99 (2021).