|12 Dec 2019|
This year, ISKL Alumnus William Birdthistle (Class of ‘91) was awarded the prestigious 2019 Teaching Award from the University of Chicago Law School. While you might imagine his focus during high school was on pursuing a legal career, in fact, William’s passions during his high school years at ISKL were soccer and drama.
William was a pre-International Baccalaureate era student who graduated with APs and a High School Diploma from ISKL. From school, he went first to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina where he studied English and Psychology, and then worked for a year as a paralegal at a law firm, before studying Law at Harvard Law School, graduating in 1999. After several years practicing law, William took up teaching and is now Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School. He is also working towards a PhD in history at the university.
A specialist in investment funds and corporate law, William is also author of Empire of the Fund: The Way We Save Now and The Research Handbook on the Regulation of Mutual Funds. William shared his memories of his time at ISKL and advice for students considering their university options with ISKL’s Lynette MacDonald.
LM: Were Economics and Law always on your radar at school? What drew you to the legal profession?
Not really. At college, I was primarily attracted to English, having taken AP English at ISKL, and I did a lot of drama, having done lots of plays at ISKL. I didn’t seriously consider any math or business materials at college. I did think about law, but Duke did not have a pre-law program, so there wasn’t much to do about law while at college, other than to apply to law schools. Then, even at law school, I was not very interested in business or economics; I focused more on litigation and law review work. It was only after law school, when I joined a start-up company founded by two law school friends, that I started to think more about business. I had a great (albeit short) experience with that company, and then when I went back to practicing law and ultimately teaching law, I did focus upon corporate law.
LM: You studied at Duke and Harvard, both elite (one Ivy League) schools. What are the pros and cons of that environment?
Duke, despite its aspirations, is not an Ivy League school, and I think that shows in many ways. Compared to many classmates at ISKL, many of the students there tended to be academically – more than intellectually – inclined. So they focused on their schoolwork and getting good grades, but I found only a happy few of them who seemed to love intellectual pursuits. Duke was also particularly fond of its sports, Greek life, and socializing – I think that would appeal to many students, but it was somewhat jarring coming from Kuala Lumpur. Most people that meet me now express surprise that I went to college at Duke and, had I known more about the US collegiate landscape, I might have found a college that was a closer fit for me. Harvard is certainly an Ivy League school, and it impressed me greatly with the depth and intensity of intellectualism of its student body. Since I was there for a graduate degree, I can’t really comment on the drawbacks of that experience, though I’m sure there are some. But as a graduate student, one generally has one’s personal life in order, so the biggest variable was the educational experience. And for me, Harvard provided a truly outstanding education: the professors and the students were brilliant, hardworking, and extremely impressive.
LM: What advice do you have for students aiming to study economics and law in the USA? Is Harvard for every high achiever?
Well, first I would say that one need not reach an early conclusion on whether they want to study law and economics. Again, I didn’t reach those conclusions until many years after I began college. So I’d always advise students to begin with what they enjoy most. And, failing that, then I’d urge them to take classes with the most renowned teachers at their colleges: in my experience, as both a student and a teacher, the educational experience is hugely improved when students enjoy the teacher’s classroom performance. If someone does decide to study economics, then the good news is that most universities have come to embrace that discipline wholeheartedly in recent years, so good classes and teachers are likely to be available at almost every university. As for law, the good news is that students don’t have to choose a major or a focus – law schools all offer something of a standard 1L (first year Law) curriculum. So most students simply attend the best school that they get into, and I can think of only a few idiosyncratic situations not to do that. Yes, Harvard was a great law school, though I think Yale, Stanford, and Chicago would be places that someone might reasonably choose ahead of Harvard, depending on their interests.
LM: What made you choose your current role in academia? Do you miss practicing law?
No, I don’t really miss practicing law. Law firms pay their attorneys quite a bit of money, and they tend to get every penny back from the labor of those lawyers. Some people truly love working on cases or deals at 3:00 a.m., but I didn’t. So I have no interest in going back. Teaching law, I find, is a wonderful job, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do or be better at. The good news is that the legal academic profession is highly organized: anyone who is interested in becoming a law professor simply applies through a centralized process, then attends a single annual conference in Washington, DC, and gets to apply to every law school in America in a single process.
LM: I notice in reviews of you as a lecturer that a recurring comment is that you’re funny (sometimes hilarious!) and make even dry subjects entertaining and interesting. How do you characterize your teaching style? Is humor important, even in economics/law?
I think humor is important in everything that humans do. I have a strong bias towards people who are funny, as I think it demonstrates a kind outlook on life and a very fast brain that connects different and sometimes incongruous topics. Yes, I do try to make my classes enjoyable, with greater and less success at times, but I genuinely believe that students will learn nothing if they don’t want to be in the classroom. So by making a class entertaining – with video clips, interesting stories, humor, drama, or anything else – then students will be engaged; then and only then will they learn, I believe. I tend to think that humor is all the more important in boring subjects, or subjects that people expect are going to be boring. In those kinds of classes, the teacher’s first job is to persuade the students that their preconceptions might have been wrong, and that the subject might be more captivating than they expected. The good news for teachers like me is that most students have such low expectations for business classes that it’s not terribly hard to exceed their expectations.
LM: In 2016 you published Empire of the Fund: The Way We Save Now about retirement saving in the USA. Then, in 2017, you weighed in on the debate about changes to the current laws, which President Donald Trump at the time ruled out. I notice that you are also active politically on Twitter. How difficult and yet important is it that we have credible research and analysis in important public policy decision making?
Law is, I think, one of the more politically engaged disciplines: everything we teach and study is the subject of political deliberation and the legislative process by elected representatives. I tend to fear overstepping bounds by being too political, as I fear that will turn off some students, and students deserve teachers who can objectively present a range of intellectual and political ideas without bias. Still, I also tend to think we live in a politically fraught time in which politically vulnerable communities – such as immigrants and refugees – face unprecedented threats. So it’s been harder than usual for me to remain silent. But, aside from my own behavior and preferences, I do think that legal studies are far more acutely entwined with public policy decision making than most fields. Indeed, scholarship is fields like math or even history can be much more removed from policy decisions; law almost never is.
LM: You’re Irish, but lived in Libya and Malaysia and now live in the USA. It’s quite a mix! How much of Malaysia, and ISKL, remains with you?
I regret that I haven’t been back to Malaysia in so long, and I recall passing a bittersweet milestone in which I had lived longer in the United States than I had outside of it. Certainly, when I came to America, I felt very much like a foreigner and had no intention of staying permanently or becoming a citizen. I think that more of ISKL remains with me than Malaysia. I was not, of course, a Malaysian citizen, nor did I learn as much as I should have about Malaysian history and culture, or about languages like Cantonese or Malay. I greatly enjoyed my time there, but I obviously did not dig as deeply into it as I wish I had. ISKL, by contrast, remains deeply in my soul to this day: my closest friends and favorite teachers were such funny, intelligent, and deeply creative people – they have set the standard for people whom I admire to this day.
LM: Do you have a favorite memory of ISKL?
Not a single favorite, but many of my favorites come from soccer (as a senior, our team won IASAS with a team of eleven starters from eleven different countries) and drama (which also did extremely well at IASAS). I remember thinking that people like Huzir Sulaiman ’90, Gabe Weisert ’90, and Eunice Moyle ’91 were among the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever encountered.
LM: Did you participate in programs such as SEA Forensics or Model United Nations (MUN) while at ISKL? If so, did that whet your appetite for a career in law?
My main efforts were spent on soccer and drama, and nothing has prepared me for law and teaching like drama – being a lawyer and a professor is just another performance that calls for enunciation, projection, and a certain dramatic flair. I did a little forensics, particularly oral interp and impromptu, which were excellent models for thinking quickly on one’s feet and projecting to an entire room.
LM: Was there a teacher/s who influenced your choice of career, or particularly fostered your interests?
Bill Bennett, rest his soul, was a brilliant teacher and director who very much inspired me. As a sophomore, I took his class on Cultural and Political Geography, which proved to me that students can respond to high expectations: he had us successfully memorize every country, capital, and major river in the world, and I remember much of it to this day. He was also our drama director, and he had us perform ridiculously ambitious plays by Jean Claude von Italie and Eugene Ionesco – which we did with great success. Karen Palko was also a huge inspiration for me: I never had her as a student, nor did I do dance, but many of my close friends and my sister did; and like Bill, she set a hugely ambitious standard that she forced her dancers to reach. That kind of impact by a teacher is something to which I still aspire.
LM: What does your international upbringing bring to your teaching?
Much of what I’ve already said about humor and high standards helped me the most, though those of course are not specific to an international upbringing. Growing up abroad, specifically, has given me two things that I value: one is the ability to have a conversation with almost anybody I’ve ever met anywhere (since Malaysia alone allows one to talk about all sorts of cultures, foods, religions, geographies, etc.); the other is to appreciate the wonderful diversity of life on this planet. America is a wonderful country but, like every country, it can be shockingly parochial in some ways. Growing up abroad never lets me forget that.
LM: You joined a Supreme Court Justice and other esteemed legal minds when you were awarded the 2019 Teaching Award from the University of Chicago Law School. How does it make you feel to be in this company?
Truly thrilled and genuinely honored; and because I value teaching so much, I’m certain it’s the greatest honor of my career. Now I have to think about how I can possibly reach that kind of level again!
LM: Will you be Justice/Hon. William Birdthistle one day?
Almost certainly not: that role is such a political one these days, I’m confident I haven’t spent enough time developing the requisite political connections. Plus, having spent a lot of time studying the writings of justices in law school, I’m not sure it’s something I’d enjoy or be good at. I’d rather be the best teacher I can possibly be.
Class of 1991
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