Our Law-in-Action Tradition

Every law school, UW Law School included, will teach you the legal rules. Rules laid down in statutes and regulations. Rules announced by state and federal judges in their appellate decisions.

At UW Law, students learn not only legal rules, but also why those rules evolved to address social concerns, and how those rules operate in the real world. We're not the only school that features a broader, more socially aware view of law. But we are the only school whose hallmark is the law-in-action approach to teaching. That's what makes UW Law a different kind of law school. That's why Wisconsin will make you a different — and better — kind of lawyer.

How Law-In-Action works

Learning the "law in action" means asking how people and companies and governments actually interact, and examining how the rules are only part of the influence on their actions. It means studying with professors whose own work examines the role of law in the world, the "law and society" school of research. And it means teaching you how to think about all these parts of the puzzle.

Here are a few examples of how the law-in-action perspective enriches classroom study and law practice:

You are studying the concept of "reasonable care" in your torts class.

The case law says that reasonable care can sometimes be measured by asking how much it would cost to do something safer as compared to the cost of the injuries now being caused by the activity. How do we measure the cost of those injuries? To the victim, it is all the costs associated with medical care, time out of work, etc. But a Wisconsin professor will take it a step further. From the defendant's point of view, the cost of the injuries depends on how many injured people will bother to sue, and how many of them (faced with the lengthy delays of litigation) will settle for pennies on the dollar in order to get a quicker recovery. Understanding how victims and defendants operate in the real world makes you far better prepared to advise your clients, whoever they may be. It also provides better preparation for working to change the law.

Your client needs a statutory provision to be interpreted in a particular way in order to win the case.

Some classes on statutory interpretation emphasize certain maxims, including one that directs the courts to interpret rules in a way that furthers the underlying legislative intent. But at Wisconsin, you studied with a professor who actually surveyed legislators, and who documented that they often pass legislation whose provisions are deliberately left ambiguous, since this was the only way to garner a majority vote. In such cases, there is evidence that no legislative intent ever existed. Indeed, the legislature's only intent appears to have been the intent to give the courts the final say on the meaning of the rule, and you can argue persuasively to the court that the judge ought to feel free to interpret the provision in a fashion favorable to your client.

Your client has been subjected to predatory practices in the form of high interest payday loans.

But in your Consumer Law Clinic at UW you learned, first hand, that it can be pointless to sue if the defendant is broke or already has many judgments against him. Perhaps it would be more effective to work with banks to find a less predatory way to provide short-term loans to low-income people.

You are working as a staff member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee is holding a hearing about whether the Independent Prosecutor can bring criminal charges against the President, even before the Senate has considered the issue of impeachment. You hear eloquent statements from many law professors on constitutional history and the debates of the 18th century, now enshrined in The Federalist Papers. Then a Wisconsin law professor begins to testify. A former prosecutor, he emphasizes that in all criminal prosecutions, the prosecutor's power often lies in the ability to force a plea bargain. Suddenly you are thrown back to your law-in-action days as a UW student, and you realize that allowing the Independent Prosecutor to proceed means that a plea bargain may force the President to step down even before the Senate gets to act. You alert your committee leadership that they--who are all elected members of the federal government – are about to cede all their authority to a single, unelected individual, an outcome they are hardly likely to support.

You are a member of a state law reform commission.

As a member of the commission, you are tasked with improving both the substance and procedures of criminal law. As at other law schools, your classes at UW covered United States Supreme Court constitutional cases that address the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, police interrogation techniques, and the rights of a criminal defendant at trial. But at UW you also had a class called Criminal Justice Administration, which explores why the state legislature passed a "mandatory arrest law" for domestic violence situations and assesses the law's effect on police practices; examined the day-to-day decisions that a prosecutor must make about whether, or how much, to charge a defendant in a particular case; and investigated the goals and effectiveness of incarceration compared to other dispositions such as probation, drug treatment, or community service. Your contributions to the law reform commission are imbued not only with theoretical rigor but also with a keen appreciation of which reforms are most likely to achieve their intended effect.

Learn more

UW Law School's rich law-in-action tradition is an important part of who we are, and it will remain an important part of who we become. After all these years, it still empowers our graduates to navigate an increasingly complex, competitive and challenging world. If you'd like to learn more about law-in-action at UW Law School, the articles listed below will give you a place to start.

  • Paul D. Carrington and Erika King, Law and the Wisconsin Idea, 47 Journal of Legal Education 297 (1997) [pdf]
  • Davis, Kenneth B., Jr., Law in Action. [pdf]
  • W. Scott van Alystyne, Jr., The University of Wisconsin Law School 1868-1968: An Outline History, 1968 Wisconsin Law Review 321. [pdf]
  • John E. Conway, The Law School: Service to the State and Nation, 1968 Wisconsin L. Rev. 345. [pdf]
  • Willard Hurst, Changing Responsibilities of the Law School 1868-1968, 1968 Wisconsin L. Rev. 336. [pdf]
  • Stewart Macaulay, Wisconsin's Legal Tradition, 24 Gargoyle 6-10 (1994) [pdf]

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