The Legal Empiricist
Retiring professor Herbert Kritzer brought a political scientist’s perspective to studying the legal profession
Herbert “Bert” Kritzer was an unusual hire for the University of Minnesota Law School. A political scientist, he was close to retirement age when he joined the faculty in 2009 after a career spent researching the legal profession, civil litigation, and judicial selection. But Kritzer overturned any skepticism through his influential and wide-ranging scholarship about the practice of law over the last 13 years.
The Marvin J. Sonosky Chair of Law and Public Policy, Kritzer brought a political scientist’s vantage to studying how lawyers work. He delved into the ins and outs of legal practice and assessed changes in state judicial elections. Kritzer calls his time at Minnesota Law the “most productive part” of his career, during which he engaged in meaty research, taught numerous law classes, and served in leadership roles.
Though it wasn’t necessarily his intention at the start of his political science career, Kritzer made significant contributions to under- standing many aspects of practicing law. He brought a social-science approach to researching civil litigation, legal malpractice, legal advocacy, and contingency fees, to name a few areas, resulting in 10 books and more than 100 journal articles and book chapters.
“My main goal has been revealing
how things work in practice, both
to my academic colleagues and potential policy makers,” Kritzer says. “And there is a lot to talk about with how much judicial elections have changed over time, whether that is changes in how judges are being selected and whether elections have become more partisan and more competitive.”
Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law, says Kritzer made a lasting impact on Minnesota Law and the legal profession. “Professor Kritzer’s empirical, data-driven approach and scholarship have truly transformed the interdisciplinary approach of our faculty and law school,” Jenkins says.
“Bert has had a remarkable career—as a pioneering political scientist for 35 years who moved from studying lawyers to teaching lawyers for the past 13 years—with a huge impact on socio-legal studies and our understanding of the work of lawyers,” Jenkins adds. “I extend my sincerest congratulations and thanks to him. We will miss his warmth and sharp intellect, and we will also see far fewer giraffe ties in Mondale Hall with his retirement.” (Kritzer wore a different giraffe tie each day and always incorporated a giraffe into his torts exams.)
A Political Science Pathway
Before joining Minnesota Law, Kritzer taught political science for 30 years at the University of Wisconsin– Madison. He got his start teaching research methods and the judicial process, thanks to his dissertation about judges. That, along with a large grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to study civil litigation, set Kritzer on a path to researching how lawyers practice law, the profession in action, and judicial selection.
After commuting for years between Madison and the Twin Cities, Kritzer joined William Mitchell College of Law in 2007 as a law professor. He joined Minnesota Law soon after. In addition to his scholarship, he was tasked with teaching one traditional law course. Kritzer picked torts, eventually adding courses in law and politics, statistics for lawyers, and empirical perspectives on law.
Teaching torts was very different from other courses he had taught in the past, “and it was energizing,” Kritzer says. “I really enjoyed the style of teaching. You can really see, in a clear way, the students’ development.”
Charles Geyh, distinguished
professor of law at Indiana University,
works in similar academic circles as Kritzer and has informally
collaborated with him on judicial
selection research. Calling Kritzer
“an academic’s academic,” Geyh says he learned much from Kritzer, including his use of data to power conclusions, his interdisciplinary approach, and his willingness to immerse himself in the profession as an outsider.
“I can’t think of another scholar who has one foot in a different discipline but has succeeded in integrating himself with lawyers in a way that aided him in making a major impact on both political science and law,” Geyh says. “An outstanding scholar is someone who makes a mark in multiple areas, and Bert has done that over the course of his career. He really is an expert in a range of fields in American government. That is the mark of an agile mind and one of the titans in the field.”
Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities–based freelance writer