By Sarah Galer
“ It was such a wonderful start to my legal career and in many ways shaped it completely in terms of the values, in terms of what I learned from the judge and how it brought my whole law school experien”
Matthew Tokson, JD’08 and University of Chicago Bigelow Teaching Fellow, will spend next year clerking for former Supreme Court Justice David Souter in retirement, something he had not even contemplated a couple of years ago.
His inspiration to apply came from Dennis Hutchinson, Senior Lecturer in Law and William Rainey Harper Professor in the College, who he calls “the biggest asset that Chicago has” for clerkship placement.
Hutchinson has headed the UChicago clerkship committee for more than 10 years and has helped countless aspiring law clerks find positions all around the country. However, according to Hutchinson, the Law School’s commitment to judicial service started long before his arrival.
Hutchinson, a legal historian, says the Law School began to transform itself from a regionally focused law school to the nationally recognized program it is today under Edward H. Levi, dean from 1950-62, who started to actively recruit more geographically diverse students and increase the number of merit scholarships.
Today’s Law School graduates come from all over the country, and take jobs in far-flung locations. But graduates before Levi’s tenure tended to be from the Midwest and stayed here to practice, where fewer clerkships were available.
In 1968, Owen Fiss, now the Sterling Professor of Law at Yale University, came to teach at the Law School straight from the front lines of a legal revolution, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. The 1960s were an exciting time of change in the southern United States and a peak period of game-changing civil rights litigation in the South.
Hutchinson credits Fiss in helping to inspire students through his work at the Justice Department, his teaching on civil rights cases, and his encouragement to take clerkships in southern states for judges at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
“The students were excited about it, and it just seemed to me that they could, first get to know an important part of the country; second, clerk for really outstanding judges; and third, work on cases that were beyond exciting and inspiring,” says Fiss.
One of Fiss’s students, Alfred Aman, JD’70, excited by the legal changes in the south, applied to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which decided many of the key civil right cases of the time, and received an offer from Judge Elbert Tuttle, who had just retired as chief judge but was still carrying a full case load.
When he mentioned his misgivings to Fiss about working for someone so “old”—Judge Tuttle was about 70—Fiss was blunt: “If you don’t leave my office immediately, call the judge back and accept this position, you’ll be making the biggest mistake of your life,” he said, according to Aman.
“That is an exact quote,” says Aman, who immediately called Judge Tuttle to accept the position, a decision he has never regretted. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
“It was such a wonderful start to my legal career, and in many ways, shaped it completely in terms of the values, in terms of what I learned from the judge, and how it brought my whole law school experience alive,” says Aman.
Today, Hutchinson seems to be doing much as Fiss did 40 years ago.
“[Professor Hutchinson] seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of appeals court and district judges; he knew which judges were a pleasure to work for and those who are not,” says Tokson.
“I give him a lot of credit for helping me and countless others with clerkships.”
Originally published on July 11, 2011.