Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Meet Glen O. Robinson, Prof. Emeritus - University of Virginia School of Law

by Nina Hart

Meet Glen O. Robinson, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Law.  Below, he discusses his unexpected path to a legal career that included a stint as a Commissioner for the FCC, and offers insights on the differences between practitioners and academics.

1. What led you to a career in law?

I drifted into it.  I majored in Government at Harvard, though mostly I studied literature and philosophy so it would be accurate to say simply that I was a liberal arts major who read Nietzsche and a lot of Russian novels.  In any case, I was not prepared for work in the real world.  However, I thought I could probably handle law and went off to Stanford to check it out.  It worked out ok.

2.  What experiences with administrative or regulatory law have you had?

My first experience was as a junior associate with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., where I helped broadcast clients deal with the Federal Communications Commission.  After several years of private practice, I embarked on an academic career at the University of Minnesota, where administrative law was my principal subject.  (With colleagues, I published a communications law casebook in 1974, which went through four editions before it succumbed to the lack of market demand.)

My teaching was briefly interrupted in the mid-1970s when I was appointed to the FCC, which gave me a new look at administrative/regulatory law from the inside.  (The difference between inside and outside perspectives did not substantially change my substantive views about most of the issues, however; most of them were antithetical to all the work that I did as a practitioner.)  After a short tenure at the FCC, I joined the University of Virginia faculty where I taught and wrote on a variety of subjects.  I continued to teach the basic administrative law course for another score years.  Eventually I lost interest in the basic course and developed a course in communications regulation, which I taught until retirement in 2008.  Communications law (more precisely the regulation of electronic communications) remains a keen interest.  In 2008, a colleague and I published a book on Communications Regulation; we are now finishing (forthcoming in 2014).

3.  How did you become interested in studying and teaching administrative law?

It was an accident.  When I joined Covington & Burling I was assigned to work with the communications law group.  I did not have any law school preparation for that work.  I had taken a course in administrative law, but I didn’t learn anything that proved useful to my practice.  So, more or less it was just a case of sink or swim.  I learned to float.  The interest in administrative regulation developed more fully when I went into teaching and it became a staple of my teaching and research for most of my career.

4.  How would you characterize the dialogue between academics and practitioners with regards to administrative law? Are there ways to improve how professors, agencies, and advocates work together to shape or change administrative law? Are there specific issues related to regulation development or review that you think warrant a greater degree of collaboration between academics and practitioners?

There isn’t all that much dialogue as a matter of routine teaching or practice. Obviously there is interaction in some forums where the two come together—as with ABA section activities.  But more generally, there is not that much occasion for collaboration.  Should there be more?  At a very general level the easy answer is yes.  At the next level down, the answer isn’t so easy. 

Start with the question whether practitioners can contribute to the classroom.  Everything depends on what is being taught.  I am skeptical of the value of inviting practitioners in for cameo appearances to address subjects to which their practice experience is of marginal importance.  Inviting a guest lecture to hold forth on the Chevron doctrine is rather pointless.  A practitioner who has argued countless agency appeals has no special insights into the verbal formulas used in applying the Chevron doctrine.  (Nor, for that matter, does the academic.)  On the other hand, if the subject is whether Chevron deference should be given for the FCC’s interpretation of a statute governing competitive access to local telephone networks, then having an experienced practitioner in the field of communications law to explain how network access works, what the policy implications are, etc. would be invaluable.  

On the flip side, can academics help practitioners?  Put aside using academics as consultants or expert witnesses on some subject within the latters’ special expertise.  I have done some consulting on specialized issues, but I never thought of it as a real collaboration of the kind the question seems to intend.  Thinking beyond this limited form of practitioner-academic collaboration the answer to the question depends on clarifying the purpose to be served.  Many years ago a number of major law firms adopted programs of having a scholar in residence.  I participated in one of those programs with the Washington office of a national law firm.  It was for a brief time—a week or two as I recall.  The firm was vague about what they expected me to do.  I had thought there might be some active consultation on matters of mutual interest, but that turned out not to be the case.  Apparently they conceived of the program as a special attraction for young associates who would think it cool to drop by my office and chat about legal matters of mutual interest.  However, the associates, like the partners, had better things to do-- chatting up a resident academic didn’t add a minute to their billable hours.  So, I gave a couple of informal lunch talks to groups of lawyers and then did my own work; that was it.  The lesson?  If there is one, it is that this kind of collaboration will not add value unless there is a well-defined objective and a schedule of work to be done.  Merely putting academics and practitioners together in the same space in the hope of generating an osmotic transfer of intellectual essence is a waste of time and money.

Specifically on the question of administrative law reform, well, on any subject it is plainly useful to have many minds working on the issues.  However, the question implies something more than bringing multiple minds together; it is about bringing together people with different perspectives.  So, that naturally invites the further question whether the respective participants have distinctive perspectives or information on the issues.  I don’t think I could answer that in the abstract without knowing what the issues are.  For example, if the question at hand is whether to have greater or less formalities for agency rulemaking proceeding I don’t think you could assume that an academic’s perspective on the formalities of rulemaking would be all that different from a practitioner’s.
5.  What do you think is the biggest challenge facing administrative law practitioners?

When I was a young practitioner my greatest challenge was overcoming boredom since much of my work was repetitious and often trivial.  But I don’t have any reason to think this is a greater problem for administrative law practitioners than for others. 

6.  For law students or new attorneys considering a career in administrative law, what do you think would be a good way of familiarizing themselves with the field?

I have never known anyone who practiced generic administrative law.  Law firms have specialists in, e.g., environmental law, food and drug law, securities regulation, trade regulation, communications law, etc.  I suppose you can loosely describe all these as “administrative law,” but they do not share enough commonality to call them a “field” for any practical purpose.  If someone asked me how to prepare for a career in administrative law I would tell them to think about the underlying issues that they think are interesting.  That will reveal at once what courses they should take in law school.  After they have graduated the surest way to gain familiarity is to practice for a while with an agency doing that kind of work.  This is likely to give a wider exposure to the subject than an entry-level position in a law firm, where there is a high probability of becoming indentured to some small corner of the field.

7.  Outside of the law, what are your favorite activities or hobbies?

Reading (but I no longer read much law), gardening (I tend about 9 acres of undisciplined plant life) and foreign travel (the more foreign the better).

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