By Gwyneth K. Shaw
For 40 years, Professor Robert Cooter has been a giant at Berkeley Law and a pioneer in the field of law and economics. At a recent special conference to celebrate his legacy, colleagues, former students, and peers in the field lauded not just his trailblazing work, but his incredible warmth and generosity.
Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky opened the event, calling Cooter a “pillar of this institution” and especially important to the school’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, which was still fairly new when he joined the law faculty in 1980.
Many academics aspire to be an inspiring mentor, a great teacher, and an important figure in their field and institution. Chemerinsky, who knew Cooter only by his work before joining Berkeley Law in 2017, noted that while few achieve it, Cooter has.
“I expected when I met him to be struck by his brilliance, and I was,” Chemerinsky said. “But what I didn’t know until I met Bob was his tremendous wisdom, and his warmth and kindness.”
The two began breakfasting regularly, and Cooter has offered tremendous insights into the law school’s past, and what its future should look like, Chemerinsky said.
Those kinds of stories tumbled forth over and over at the two-day conference, which focused on how and whether the law can change people’s preferences. It’s a conversation Cooter basically started with his own work, and many of the presenters referenced his insights as they discussed their new research.
The articles presented at the conference will be published in a special issue of the journal Theoretical Inquiries in Law, in the summer of 2021. The conference was co-sponsored by the Cegla Center for Interdisciplinary Research of the Law at the Buchmann Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University.
Berkeley Law Professor Stephen Sugarman, who helped organize the conference, said everyone at the event felt lucky to be “knit together by our connections with Bob and his wonderful leadership and mentorship over all these many years.”
Colleagues who presented or responded to papers included professors Kathyrn Abrams, Catherine Albiston, Prasad Krishnamurthy, Avani Mehta Sood, Paul Schwartz, Katerina Linos, Karen Tani, Adam Badawi, and Sugarman. Some of the school’s newest faculty members also participated, including David Singh Grewal, Rebeccca Wexler, Jonah Gelbach, Rebecca Goldstein, Manisha Padi, and Abhay Aneja.
The discussion was fueled by intellectual firepower tempered with tributes that spanned decades.
Michael Gilbert, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, got his J.D. and his Ph.D. at Berkeley and has co-authored books and articles with Cooter.
“He taught me just about everything I know, here in this building,” Gilbert said. “He’s been an intellectual guidepost for me for 20 years.”
NYU School of Law Professor Jennifer Arlen joked that she’d met Cooter via FedEx, when she edited a co-authored article of his while still a law student in the pre-email days.
“That began a really long and wonderful relationship that I enormously benefited from, because he became a real mentor and an inspiration,” she said.
Many of Cooter’s colleagues, old and new, told their own stories of Cooter’s intellectual heft—and passion for physical activity.
Berkeley Law Professor Aaron Edlin, who leads the new Law, Economics, and Politics (LEAP) Center, told the story of a meeting with Cooter while Edlin was being recruited to Berkeley that ended up with both joining a soccer game. He and others recounted running mile after mile with Cooter up the steep trails behind the campus.
“I’ve been a friend of Bob’s for 27 years now, and what I can tell you is that Bob loves his family, his friends, ideas, and exercise, probably in that order,” Edlin said. “Although probably all to a maximal extent, because that’s the way Bob is.”
Cooter and Edlin also founded the Berkeley Electronic Press, now known as bepress, in 1999 as an way to streamline the publication of academic work.
“They say entrepreneurship is like a marriage, and it really is,” Edlin said. “We were married for roughly 20 years and we loved it all.”
Emeritus Professor Daniel Rubinfeld, who organized and co-taught the law and economics sequence at Berkeley Law with Cooter, said Cooter made major investments of his time into growing the field of law and economics, including at institutions in Latin America and Asia.
“We had an amazing relationship and collaboration,” Rubinfeld said. “Academics with big egos sometimes find it hard to be generous to other colleagues. Bob has been fantastic in that regard. He’s generous, clever, responsive, and incredibly public-regarding.”
Cooter dug into the scholarship, and was clearly touched and gratified by the gathering.
“My collaborators and my co-authors are my best friends. Not many people get that privilege and I did,” Cooter said. “I’ll never forget it. This was definitely the high point of my career.”