By Andrew Cohen
While daunting to many, steep learning curves always entice Professor Robert Bartlett to climb higher. On April 19, he scaled another peak in his fast-rising career by winning Berkeley Law’s annual Rutter Award for Teaching Distinction.
Established in 1995 by the late William Rutter—a philanthropist, lawyer, educator and author—the award honors an instructor who inspires students and demonstrates a deep commitment to teaching.
After graduating from Harvard Law in 2000, Bartlett—“mesmerized and inspired” by Silicon Valley’s burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem—joined a law firm that represented startups and venture capital firms.
“The learning curve was incredibly steep, which was just awesome,” he says. “I also loved the fact that the practice required me to learn so much about financial modeling, while forcing me to master the intricacies of securities regulation.”
Bartlett enjoyed it so much that he built Excel models in his free time to automate some analyses that were becoming more common in the industry. His work revealed some flaws in the venture capital pricing model—and inspired his first article after law school.
From attorney to academic
As the steepness of that learning curve diminished, however, Bartlett “missed the intellectual intensity of those initial years.” Spurred by a law school classmate who became an academic, Bartlett took a leave of absence to teach as a visiting assistant professor at Fordham Law School. Based on that experience, Bartlett decided to make a formal transition to the academy, starting at the University of Georgia School of Law as an assistant professor in 2005.
Able to explore more deeply how law and institutions shape our capital markets, he developed a pragmatic, practice-oriented approach to teaching business law—and joined Berkeley Law’s faculty in 2009. Citing clarity, relevance, and inclusiveness as top classroom priorities, his methods are clearly working.
“What makes him an effective teacher is his ability to break down complex legal issues into plain language,” says student Travis Mitchell ’19. “His teaching style is very conversational and students feel like they can always ask any question at any time. … Professor Bartlett is always available for students both academically and professionally and will go out of his way to help them.”
Mitchell, who has taken Contracts, Securities Regulation, and Corporate Finance with Bartlett, also admires his “ability to effortlessly incorporate practical knowledge, complex legal theory, dad jokes, and awkward comedy about pop culture into every lecture.”
Ana Duong ’19, who had Contracts with Bartlett and now takes his Corporate Finance class, sees “how much he cares about his students and genuinely wants them to learn and succeed. I also appreciate his efforts to teach us practical skills and knowledge that we’ll need when we practice law.”
Echoing Mitchell, she adds, “We ended up with several running jokes that always made us laugh. Shawn Mendes and Fifth Harmony will now always remind me of Contracts.”
Taking care of business
All joking aside, Bartlett has been a driving force behind Berkeley Law’s surging business law program. Faculty co-director of the school’s Berkeley Center for Law and Business (BCBL), he helped launch its Startup@BerkeleyLaw initiative in 2015. Today, he is “proud of the fact that we have the most energetic, creative, and vibrant business law faculty in the country,” and of their approach.
“We’re entrepreneurial and shamelessly opportunistic,” Bartlett says. “We’re constantly looking at the market to see if our programming and curriculum should adapt and respond, either by leveraging existing campus expertise, such as with our new Blockchain course this year, or by bringing to campus industry experts, such as through our one-unit course offerings and our Leadership Lunch Series.”
Outside the classroom, Bartlett most enjoys research “where I don’t have a stake in the outcome.” His work with fellow Berkeley Law Professor Justin McCrary on how our stock markets function, for example, was fueled simply by being “interested in the answer—not because we have an agenda to advance. … I have great confidence in the results because we were honestly just looking for the answer to a question.”
Bartlett has produced some seismic scholarship, including a paper with McCrary showing that the conventional wisdom about latency arbitrage—the story told by Michael Lewis in his best-selling book Flash Boys—is empirically inaccurate, at least in today’s markets.
While hot topics in business law can change quickly, Bartlett’s favorite part of teaching at Berkeley Law never wavers.
“The students,” he says. “I love that they’re so multi-dimensional. I love that Berkeley students are so difficult to classify, and I think it goes some way in explaining why our alums are so influential in practice. It’s like those old Apple ads—they just ‘think different.’”