The Harvard Law School’s Class of 2019 chose Richard Lazarus ’79 to receive the prestigious Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for Teaching Excellence. Accepting that award at Class Day, Lazarus turned his appreciation back to the graduating HLS students.
“In spring 2010 I received a most extraordinary phone call from Dean Martha Minow,” he recalled of his invitation to teach at HLS. “It was far from clear that I would accept the offer; at the time I was a happy member of the Georgetown faculty. But here is what closed the deal for me: This is true, you did. I’ve taught at many places, I’ve had many spectacular students, but teaching here is profoundly different. It is not necessarily with any one student, it’s more what happens when you’re all brought together in the same place. So much talent, so much hard work, so much constructive ambition and so much engagement combined.
“The student body is the best part of Harvard Law School,” he continued. “Yes, the law school boasts of fabulous teachers, classes, clinics and institutes. But it’s all secondary to the main event, the classmates and the friendships formed here. That was the best part when I was a student here 40 years ago, and it’s no different today.”
Lazarus is the Howard J. and Katherine W. Aibel Professor of Law at Harvard University, where he teaches Environmental Law, Natural Resources Law, Supreme Court Advocacy, and Torts. He previously taught law at Indiana University, Washington University, and Georgetown University, and has authored two books and served as executive director of the President’s Commission responsible for investigating the root causes of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Introducing Lazarus, Class Marshal Elizabeth Jordan Fillman underlined his commitment to his students. “[He] has helped many students in the class of 2019 in their academic and professional endeavors, providing career advice, research opportunities and clerkship recommendations. In addition he has gone out of his way to support students outside of the classroom. He can always be found sitting in the front row of Parody each year, and as he planned the Bicentennial celebration last year, he ensured that the myriad talents and interests of students and alumni were represented.”
Lazarus noted proudly that he grew up around teachers; his father was a celebrated physics professor at the University of Illinois and his mother, while not a formal professor, was also a mentor to many students launching careers. “I didn’t know many lawyers growing up, I only knew teachers. And in my world that was the coin of professional success, being an excellent teacher. There was no higher honor to be achieved.”
He closed by issuing a challenge to the graduates. “This is not a time to rest on your laurels, it’s not a time for passive acquiescence, but a time for active engagement.” Both the country and the world, he said, now face challenges far greater than when the students arrived three years ago. “So long as you’re actively engaged in addressing those challenges, we can all be optimistic about our future. It requires you becoming leaders and supporting leaders who possess integrity and sound character and who seek to address injustice.”
Still, he said, they didn’t necessarily need to start before sundown. “Enjoy the day. Celebrate with loved ones tomorrow. Take the weekend off. But next Monday, focus on what you can do to put our nation and our world back on track. We need you.”
The Sacks-Freund Award recognizes a single faculty member each year for teaching ability, attentiveness to student concerns and general contributions to student life at the law school. It was established in 1992 and is named in honor of the late Harvard Law School Professors Albert Sacks ’48 and Paul Freund S.J.D. ’32. Recent recipients include Carol Steiker ’86, Mark Wu, Jeanne Suk ’02, Jon Hanson, Tyler Giannini and Benjamin Sachs.