Clark Byce, Harvard Law Royall Professor of Law Emeritus, BU Law Professor Emeritus, RIP
I was saddened today to learn of the death of Professor Clark Byce. Byce taught at Harvard Law for many years before moving to Boston University Law. He counted several Supreme Court justices among his former students, as well as numerous judges of lesser courts and other leading legal lights. He also co-wrote one of the standard textbooks on Administrative Law. Although he has always denied it, there is considerable speculation that Byce was the model for Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase
Byce turned 70 when Harvard still had mandatory retirement. He therefore became a professor emeritus at Harvard Law and accepted an offer to become a full professor at Boston University Law, where he taught first year contracts and administrative law. As a result, I was privileged to have Byce for first year contracts (he had stopped teaching ad law by my second year, alas). Amusingly, Byce had also taught my father at Harvard Law (or so Byce maintained; my father, a fellow member of the BU Law faculty, denies this).
If Byce were the model for Kingsfield, you could never prove it by me -- or any of the hundreds of students who positively adored him. (Byce always claimed to have hated Kingsfield and thought that Kingsfield was a phenomenally poor teacher.) Certainly Byce believed in Socratic method, but his personally style (at least when I had him) was that of the crotchety grandfather or great uncle whose gruff manner is always tempered by genuine affection and good will. His class was always full and always popular. When the Administration tried to move him out of first year contracts, there was a student revolt.
As an arrogant young student, utterly unintimidated by law professors, Socratic method, or public speaking, he and I had a spirited relationship in class. Consider this example: Byce: "Mr. Feld, your interpretation is plausible, but what do you say to the fact that courts have consistently rejected that interpretation for the last 50 years?" Me: "I yield to the Professor's superior wisdom and experience." Byce: "Wiseass."
Outside of class, Byce was accessible, friendly and supportive. He had a sign up sheet for students who wished to go to lunch with him, and would take a small group to lunch once a week. He not only kept office hours, he gave students his home phone number. I can recall one time my study group called him before the exam to ask him to help us on some particular thorny issues. Somehow, I can't imagine Professor Kingsfield taking calls from three confused and panicked law students on the eve of an exam on a Sunday, and patiently explaining the arcane points of contract law.
Byce helped me get my first job in the summer between first year and second year of law school by recommending me to the Boston University Office of General Counsel (the BU OGC held (and may still hold) 3 spots open for the top law students in first year, and hires based on a combination of grades and professor recommendations). Byce, along with Professor Archibald Cox (another Harvard Law emeritus), served as my faculty references out of school.
I did not stay in touch much after law school (as those who know me can attest, I'm bad at that). The last time I saw him was about 4 years ago, when I was doing a round of interviews at the annual Association of American Law Schools "meat market" in the interest of becoming a law school professor (an ambition that faded, in part from lack of interest on the demand side). A friend from Harvard Law also doing the rounds told me Byce had come and was visiting in the Harvard suite (all the law schools reserve rooms for use of their alumni). I came up to visit (they under the mistaken impression that if I had studied under Byce, I must have been a fellow Harvard Law alumn). When I entered, he was holding court in the center of a cluster of former students, looking the very picture of the dignified Professor Emeritus.
"Hello Professor Byce," I said. "I don't know if you remember me from first year contracts." It had been ten years at that point, after all, and I am only one of literally thousands of students he had taught.
"Of course I do Mr. Feld," He said. He then gave a very pronounced and artistic shudder. "How could I forget?"
We spent a few minutes catching up and exchanging pleasantries. As usual, he had a fund of advice for me on my job search -- the chief of which was that if I wanted to go into teaching law, it should be because I really loved teaching. Anything else and I would be wasting my life and, more importantly, those of my students as well.
While I'm sorry I did not see him again, it makes a pleasant final memory. Certainly Clark Byce followed his own advice. He loved teaching for its own sake, and continued to do it as long as he could manage it physically. I, as I am sure will thousands of other former students, will miss him.