Too big to fail or too hard to remember? The triumph, tragedy, and lost legacy of James M. Landis ’24

HLS Professor Todd Rakoff (left) joined his brother Judge Jed Rakoff (right) and HLS Visiting Professor Dan Coquillette to discuss the legacy of James Landis.

Credit: Martha Stewart HLS Professor Todd Rakoff (left) joined his brother Judge Jed Rakoff (right) and HLS Visiting Professor Dan Coquillette to discuss the legacy of James Landis.

James M. Landis ’24—scholar, administrator, advocate and political adviser—is known for his seminal contribution to the creation of the modern system of market regulation in the United States. As a highly influential participant in the policies of the New Deal, he drafted the statute that was to become the foundation for securities regulation in the U.S., and, by extension, the founding principle of financial market regulation across the world.

On Nov. 24, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University hosted “Too Big to Fail or Too Hard to Remember: Lessons from the New Deal and the Triumph, Tragedy, and Lost Legacy of James M. Landis.” The event was co-sponsored by the Centre for Law, Markets and Regulation at the University of New South Wales.

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Landis_194-_Historical-&-Special-Collections Credit: Historical and Special Collections

A former dean of Harvard Law School (1937-1946), Landis was a complex and in some ways tragic figure, whose career collapsed following the revelation that he had failed to pay taxes for a five-year period in the 1950s. The oversight cost him possible elevation to the Supreme Court, prosecution and suspension of his license to practice.


Justin O’Brien, a visiting fellow at the Safra Center, delivered a keynote. He argued that in rescuing from history Landis’s battles and achievements in regulatory design, theory, and practice, we speak directly to the perennial problems in financial market regulation—how to deal with institutions deemed too big to fail, how to regulate the sale of complex financial instruments, and what role the professions can play as gatekeepers of market integrity.

According to O’Brien, in failing to learn from the lessons of history, we limit the capacity of regulatory intervention to facilitate cultural change, without which contemporary responses to financial crises are destined to fail.

Following the keynote, a panel discussion featured Dan Coquillette ’71, Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History at HLS; Todd Rakoff ’75, Byrne Professor of Administrative Law at HLS; and U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff ’69. Coquillette discussed the abiding legacy of Landis’ approach to legal design. Todd Rakoff evaluated what has happened to the conception of the administrative process as enunciated by Landis. Judge Rakoff discussed regulatory design questions.

A former dean of Harvard Law School (1937-1946), Landis was a complex and in some ways tragic figure, whose career collapsed following the revelation that he had failed to pay taxes for a five-year period in the 1950s. The oversight cost him possible elevation to the Supreme Court, prosecution and suspension of his license to practice.