The Institute for Legal Studies was established by the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1985 under the leadership of David Trubek. It has continued under the direction of Marc Galanter, followed by Howard Erlanger until 2013, when Tonya Brito was named Director. Susannah Tahk became the director in 2016. In establishing the Institute, the Law School sought to expand and institutionalize its longstanding "law in action" approach, which dates back to the early part of the twentieth century and remains vital to its mission. The Institute was created to foster the interdisciplinary study and teaching of law not only by providing support for its own faculty, but also by connecting to other departments on campus and by cultivating a network of scholars with similar interests worldwide.
Over the years, the Institute has promoted and assisted independent and collaborative research in a wide variety of substantive areas in sociolegal studies. Well known work done under the Institute's umbrella includes seminal work on the social context of contractual relationships, litigation and disputing, comparative institutional analysis, poverty law and administrative agencies, family law, feminist legal theory, the legal history of the family, the implementation of law in organizations, Critical Race Theory, the legal profession, and emerging issues in international law and globalization. The Institute served as the original base of operations for the Law School and The International Division’ Global Legal Studies Center, and housed the Law & Society Review under the editorship of Bert Kritzer. Five scholars currently or formerly affiliated with the Institute have been elected president of the Law and Society Association.
The Institute counts among its affiliates many law faculty and a number of the social science and humanities faculty at the University of Wisconsin, as well as selected Distinguished Scholars at other universities. It is home to a changing group of scholars with short and long-term affiliations, including graduate students and scholars from outside the U.S.
The Institute is well-known for hosting two signature biennial events: the Hurst Summer Institute in Legal History and the Midwest Law and Society Retreat. The two-week Hurst Summer Institute, which is cosponsored by the American Society for Legal History (ASLH), brings in accomplished scholars to lead specialized sessions for a dozen early career legal historians. The Midwest Retreat brings together faculty and graduate students from the Midwest's diverse law and society programs for a weekend of intellectual exchange and community building.
Each year the Institute hosts presentations by Wisconsin faculty and visiting scholars on a wide variety of topics, as well as workshops on teaching methods and research methods. It also hosts or cosponsors symposia and conferences, covering such topics as tax lawmaking, constitutionalism, new governance, legal education, international law and globalization, New Legal Realism, and feminist legal theory.
The Institute acts as a catalyst and facilitator for scholarly work on sociolegal topics carried out by law faculty and their collaborators at Wisconsin and elsewhere, and provides technical assistance in the preparation and submission of external funding proposals for UW law faculty. It provides support for the Wisconsin Contracts Project and the Legal History and Law and Humanities programs, and has collaborated with the American Bar Foundation in a speaker exchange and the New Legal Realism Project, and by housing the Review Section of Law & Social Inquiry.