Professors Smith and Goldberg reinvigorate the study of Private Law at HLS

HLS Professors Henry Smith and John Goldberg

HLS Professors Henry Smith and John Goldberg

When John Goldberg was a law student, he had a problem in classes like contracts, torts, and property. The problem wasn’t with the subject matter, but with the fact that some professors didn’t seem to take it seriously enough.

“These are basic and important legal categories, even today,” he said. “I felt that way intuitively reading the cases, and I was being taught by a lot of professors who didn’t have that view.”

Now a professor himself, Goldberg is working with Professor Henry Smith to reinvigorate the study of such traditional law school subjects with the new Private Law Workshop, which they co-teach as part of the Project on the Foundations of Private Law at Harvard Law School. The workshop, said Goldberg, is “an opportunity to introduce students to some of the emerging literature that’s aiming to rethink the significance of private law in modern legal systems.”

Featuring several guest speakers conducting the latest research on private law topics like torts and contracts, the workshop often incorporates philosophical, historical, and economic perspectives. For example, one speaker examined whether contracts are best understood as devices that allow efficient allocation of resources or that ensure parties will keep their promises. Another recent session on the law of restitution was conducted jointly with faculty and students at Oxford University in England via video link, which offered valuable insight from foreign lawyers and scholars, who tend to offer a different perspective on private law matters, according to Goldberg.

Patrick Withers ’12, a student in the class, praised the session for addressing a subject often ignored in the United States. He said the professors and the guest speakers have provided a good survey of the different issues of private law.

“The idea of getting to meet academics who were workshopping their papers and getting to talk with people who are really on the cutting edge of this discipline was something that really appealed to me,” he said.

In particular, the workshop has interested Withers in issues of property rights, which he expects that he will apply in legal practice. That sentiment resonates with Goldberg, who hopes that students will learn lessons from the workshop that will benefit them at HLS and beyond.

“We want students to learn about the subjects and the academic debate in these subjects in part because we think it will help them stand out on the academic job market,” he said. “They’ll have training that a lot of other students won’t have. There’s no comparable program that we’re aware of at other comparable schools. And we hope it will revive lines of inquiry that have been pretty sleepy in the legal academy for some time now.”