Biden + Tribe at press conference
25 October 2021

Professor Tribe talks to Reports Legal – exclusive

One of America’s foremost constitutional scholars, a trusted adviser to Democratic presidents and Professor Emeritus at Harvard who has argued dozens of cases in the US Supreme Court, Laurence Tribe tells Dominic Carman what makes a great lawyer and why maths is more beautiful than law.


Laurence H Tribe, known to his friends as Larry, has just turned 80. Last year, he retired from full-time academia as the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, where he has taught since 1968. But Tribe remains very active in his writing and on Twitter (@tribelaw), having posted 36,000+ tweets covering the intersection between law and politics to his 1.1m followers – one of the highest global followings of any academic. During the last presidency, much of this Herculean effort was directed at what he calls ‘the many challenges posed by President Trump’s outrageous actions and statements.’

Tribe offers a well-defined weltanschauung: a liberal world view of events that has informed his fiercely Democratic politics as much as his constitutional arguments in the 36 cases which he has fought in front of the US Supreme Court. He also helped to write the constitutions of South Africa and the Czech Republic while his treatise, American Constitutional Law, has been cited more than any other legal text published in the past 70 years. His students and research assistants at Harvard have included: President Barack Obama (a research assistant for more than two years), Chief Justice John Roberts, Former D.C. Circuit Chief Judge and Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan. 

In a work schedule which he describes as ‘unrelentingly full and indeed overflowing’, Tribe is generous with his time in looking back over his career and looking forward to the needs of future lawyers. Born in Shanghai to Russian Jewish parents in 1941, he spent the first six years of his life there before his family emigrated to San Francisco. By the fall of 1958, Tribe was a Harvard student, who majored in Mathematics.


How did you become an academic? 

Before arriving at Harvard at the age of 16, as the first member of my immigrant family ever to attend college, I had no idea what a legal academic might be, much less any thought of becoming one. I had never visited a college campus other than UC-Berkeley, and had never been in New England, and certainly had never laid eyes on Harvard Yard. Indeed, apart from my liberal commitment to equal dignity for all human beings and my deep belief in the ideal of justice, I had no thought about becoming a lawyer and no sense of how legal institutions operated until midway into my year of graduate studies in Mathematics as a National Science Foundation fellow. 

It was during that year, when for the first time I was immersed exclusively in studies of abstract algebraic topology and geometry and number theory with not even a smattering of history, literature, moral or political philosophy, or what one might loosely call the humanities, that I had something of an epiphany: I realized that I could not spend my life engaged solely in the life of the mind, with little or no contact with ordinary people and their problems and with only a few interlocutors who were engaged in solving the same abstract problems that preoccupied me. 


Why law?

It wasn’t that those problems ceased to fascinate me. The problems that preoccupy abstract mathematicians (along with those that preoccupy theoretical physicists) continue to absorb me to this day, and mathematical truths continue to strike me as the deepest, most beautiful things – I hesitate to call them phenomena because they seem to me, ever a Platonist, more permanent and transcendent than “things” – that a person can encounter. 

The trouble was, and remains, twofold. First, the gap between those truths and the human experience, the joys and travails of living, is just too great for me to devote my life to the former. And second, although I was a good enough mathematician to earn a summa at Harvard and doubtless good enough to become a math professor someplace, having done well in all my graduate courses in mathematics ever since I was a sophomore at Harvard College, I was no mathematical genius, and it seemed to me, rightly or wrongly, that only a mathematical genius could expect to make a meaningful contribution to the search for deep mathematical truths. 

Yet I was determined to make a contribution of a meaningful sort to the world that I found so remarkable and to which I felt such profound gratitude. Having survived the ravages of war-torn Shanghai as one of two children of Jewish refugees from the pogroms and the Holocaust, I felt a deep sense of debt, both to human civilization as a whole, overblown as that might sound, and to the United States of America in particular, the remarkable nation that gave my family shelter after we emigrated from Shanghai to California in 1947. I concluded that I might be able to pay it forward, as the saying goes, by devoting myself to the law, a discipline that also had its internal beauty although nothing like the beauty I found in mathematics. 


Who were your mentors and what did you learn from them? 

I have had a score of mentors throughout my life. My mother Polia mentored me in perseverance and ambition. My father George and my late brother Shurka (whose American friends all called him “Al”) mentored me in kindness. 

My college experience at Harvard exposed me to more mentors than I can take the time to enumerate. At Harvard Law School, my principal mentors were Louis Jaffe, Henry Hart, Paul Freund, Archie Cox, Albert Sacks, and Paul Bator. From each, I learned a very different set of skills, absorbed a different set of perspectives and insights, and assimilated a different set of sensibilities. My other mentors include: Sargent Shriver, Potter Stewart and Mathew Tobriner.


What defines a great lawyer as opposed to a really good one? 

Something too ineffable to express in a brief set of sentences, that’s for sure. Empathy would be higher on my list than I imagine it would be on the lists composed by most lawyers. Imagination, of course. Good judgment, almost by definition. Intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. A willingness to change one’s mind and to admit that one has done so, without shame or self-congratulation. Historical sensitivity and knowledge, something I think was lacking from my early education and that I have had to fill in as I’ve gone along. 

A practical, problem-solving, non-zero-sum attitude matters greatly. Articulateness and a feeling for the poetic turn of phrase and the value of elegant expression. Lots of really good lawyers can write, but unless they can write with grace and force and avoid hackneyed expression it’s unlikely that they’d count as “great” in my book. Finally, I don’t think someone can be counted a “great lawyer” unless she or he has a deep and unwavering commitment to truth, integrity, decency, dignity, and justice. The lawyer who is best at helping terrible people get away with terrible deeds might be a superb technician but can’t count as “great” in my eyes.


Which lawyers (past/present) best exemplify those qualities? 

Any list I might compose would surely include: John Marshall, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Jackson, Thurgood Marshall, Louis Brandeis, William Brennan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


Of the Harvard students whom you’ve taught, who stands out as great? 

Without separating out great lawyers and/or law professors from great people who happen to have been my law students, and without even trying to be comprehensive, I’d certainly include, in no particular order: Barack Obama, Kathleen Sullivan, Elena Kagan, Adam Schiff, Jamie Raskin, Jack Balkin, Cass Sunstein, Samantha Power, Erwin Chemerinsky, and David Barron. I’ve had other students in more recent years who are likely to stand out as great in retrospect, but whom it’s too early to include in such an assessment. 


Beyond experience, how do great lawyers develop good judgment? 

By critical introspection and by exercising self-criticism as well as by remaining open-minded and learning from others without limiting the set of mentors to those with whom one agrees. 


Will different skills be needed by tomorrow’s great lawyers?  

The only additional skills that tomorrow’s great lawyers will probably need that lawyers of past generations could have done without all involve familiarity and facility with various cross-disciplinary realms of knowledge and information-acquisition and manipulation, in fields like the physical and natural sciences, statistical methods and the sorting of masses of data, the use of empirical and experimental techniques, and ease in acquiring key concepts from artificial intelligence, neurology, and the biomedical sciences.  


What advice would you offer law students and young lawyers who aspire to greatness? My advice to law students and young lawyers who aspire to be great would be: Don’t. Greatness is a terrible thing to aspire to. Aspire to learn, to contribute, to love and help others, to make the world a better place than you found it, and to take joy in life.

Related News

May 2024 News

Switzerland: Still resilient and reliable?

Like the country in which they operate, Swiss law firms seem immune to adversity beyond their borders. So, how do they do they manage it?

May 2024 News

Germany’s distress: Switzerland needs the sick man of Europe to recover

As the German economic miracle gives way to stagnation and a real estate crisis, can Switzerland remain immune to the challenges facing its giant neighbour?

May 2024 News

A feast for litigators: Fallout from the UBS-Credit Suisse merger

As AT1 bondholders use “the world’s best, most expensive lawyers” to take on the Swiss financial regulator, what lessons does the Swiss bank merger provide?

May 2024 News

Swiss regulation: The privacy vs transparency debate rages on

New data protection law and anti-money laundering proposals that impact law firms’ privacy – how is Switzerland managing to square the circle?