“I would like to say that my approach to teaching results from years of careful study of pedagogy, observation of students, and reflection on results, followed by constant refinements in techniques. But that would be wildly false,” he wrote. “I do what I do because I am what I am.”
Lawson, the School of Law’s Philip S. Beck Professor of Law, and one of this year’s recipients of a Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching, is autistic. Things that are easy for others are hard for him, and vice versa. He can be oblivious to his surroundings. His west-facing office high up in the Law Tower has a terrific view, but he’s never opened the shade.
Lawson always knew he was different, but he didn’t have a name for what set him apart until a dozen years ago, when one of his two children was diagnosed as autistic. “Oh, that’s what that is,” he remembers thinking. “I’ve got that—duh.” He still hasn’t bothered to get a formal diagnosis of his place on the autism spectrum, because he believes that a diagnosis wouldn’t change a thing.
Besides, none of this matters to most of his students or peers.
“He is as well known for his sharp intellect and spot-on legal analysis as he is for his unassuming personal style and quirky sense of humor,” says Maureen A. O’Rourke, dean of LAW. “He is a wonderful colleague, a prolific scholar, and an award-winning teacher.”
“For both courses I took with him, Professor Lawson replied to all of my emails in less than 15 minutes,” Beatriz C. Menéndez (LAW’17) wrote in her Metcalf nomination letter, “and not only that, Professor Lawson would follow up with me in person and via email, without me asking, with more examples, if he believed they would make the concept clearer for me.”
What Lawson is not so good at is relating informally to others in social settings. “Put me at a cocktail party without my wife to hide behind, and I will literally—not figuratively—go into a corner somewhere and stand until it’s over.” For a law professor, that can be a problem, as he learned when he started teaching at Northwestern in 1988.
“It has for a century-plus been the norm that what you are supposed to do in a law school class is a back-and-forth, where the students are actively participating and you are, through clever and thoughtful questioning, drawing them out,” he says. “It became very obvious to me very early on that that wasn’t going to work. So I just started doing it my way.”
But Lawson is terrific at scholarship, and he is exceptional when it comes to making connections within vast oceans of material, at synthesizing complex ideas in an accessible fashion. He teaches the best way he can—by lecturing, a practice that he says made him an outlier, in fact—“wildly so”—at Northwestern.
“It was considered very odd,” he says. “I know, because people told me, that when I was hired here it was a big issue. ‘My gosh, he lectures in first year. Can we really have that?’ Even today I know, because I have heard them say so, there are people on this faculty who don’t consider that law teaching.
“It’s not like I have some deep pedagogical theory that says that they’re wrong,” he adds with a smile. “I just sort of do what I do.…I’ve been very lucky in that most of the time it has fallen into place reasonably well.”
It helps that his scholarship and publication are also impressive. He has penned multiple editions of West’s Federal Administrative Law (American Casebook Series) since 1998. Among his other books: Evidence of the Law: Proving Legal Claims (University of Chicago Press, 2017), “A Great Power of Attorney”: Understanding the Fiduciary Constitution, with Guy I. Seidman (University Press of Kansas, 2017), and the forthcoming Deference, with Guy I. Seidman (Oxford University Press).
Lawson was always at ease with intellectual architecture, earning a BA in philosophy from Claremont Men’s College and a JD from Yale Law School. He began his legal career with a small firm in his native Seattle, where his first assignment was to root through a 17,000-page transcript, 40 boxes of documents, and 100,000 frames of microfilm from an antitrust trial, seeking material for an upcoming case. “They thought they were inflicting the most heinous task ever on this young lawyer, but I loved that,” he says. When that project was over months later, the firm wanted to move him into the courtroom, so he ramped up his search for a new gig.
He ended up clerking for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at the federal circuit court for the District of Columbia, even though he had been Scalia’s fifth choice. “Once I got the job, it went really well,” Lawson says. “Clerking is essentially research and writing, much like scholarship, so I was very, very good at it.” Scalia hired him again after moving to the Supreme Court in 1986. He stayed for a year, and they kept in touch. Scalia officiated at the Lawsons’ 1993 wedding, and Lawson brought his children to meet Scalia in Washington a few years ago.
“I thought the world of Justice Scalia,” Lawson says. “He was brilliant, warm, argumentative, occasionally temperamental, and completely dedicated to his craft. His favorite saying was, ‘It’s hard to get it right.’ Words to live by.”
His relationship with Scalia hints at another thing that’s unusual about Lawson, who serves on the board of directors of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, whose goal is American legal system reform with an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. As O’Rourke put it in her nomination letter, “Professor Lawson, who leans toward the conservative end of the political spectrum, is universally respected by a mostly left-leaning faculty and student body.”
After BU hired him in 2000, Lawson became known for his sense of humor and his use of pop-culture analogies in his lectures. He thinks that’s another component of his autism, as his son does it too. He notes that some of his references to, say, 1970s one-hit wonders may now be unfamiliar to his students. But on the last day of a property law class this past semester, they seemed to get him. His farewell gifts from the class were a book of Minnie Pearl jokes and a pair of bookends made of old 45-rpm vinyl singles. “So cool,” he said. “Absolutely spectacular.”
Then he was off and running, lecturing about running covenants, mutual promises among neighbors, and what he called “Seussian” bullet points, Privity 1 and Privity 2. Lawn gnomes and their banning helped make the discussion entertaining and comprehensible, and there were also references to a tofu breakfast scramble and the band Metallica. Students occasionally interrupted with a question, and most appeared to get the jokes.
Lawson says he’s honored, flattered, and surprised by the Metcalf Award. And most of all, grateful.
“It just so happens that I’ve stumbled into a job where the things that come easily to me are the things I’m supposed to be doing,” he says. “It’s miraculous that this job exists. I’d have to invent it if it didn’t.”
A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf awards, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.
The winner of this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s top teaching honor, is Naomi Mann, a School of Law clinical associate professor of law. Sophie Godley (SPH’17), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, is the recipient of the second Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching.
More information about Commencement can be found here.