"I feel that anyone who sees law as an instrument of justice in society should study the American system of redistributing wealth: tax laws and welfare laws," remarks Jeffrey Lehman.
Lehman's interest in matters of wealth and poverty dates back at least to his days as an undergraduate at Cornell University, where he coauthored the book 1000 Ways to Win Monopoly Games, published by Dell Paperbacks in 1975. "At the beginning of the game, all players have an equal amount of money," Lehman explains. "By the end, luck and skill have combined to make one player rich and the rest poor. Whenever I ended up rich, I was sure it had been mostly skill; when I ended up poor, I blamed the fates. But I was always able to forget about the game pretty quickly. In real life, people's perceptions of the role of luck and merit also seem to depend on how they are faring, but the conflict is much harder to forget about."
Lehman continued his education at Michigan, where he obtained a masters degree from the Institute for Public Policy Studies, together with his J.D., in 1981. Along the way, he served as editor-in-chief of the Michigan Law Review and also enjoyed the distinction of appearing in LQN. In 1981, he and his wife, Diane, were included in an article about seven married couples in which both members were pursuing law degrees at Michigan (vol. 25, no. 3).
From Ann Arbor, Lehman went on to clerk for Frank M. Coffin, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. He then went to work at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Caplin & Drysdale, Chartered, noted for its expertise in tax law. He especially enjoyed the negotiating side of tax practice. He explains, "I was impressed by the importance of the human, emotional side of negotiation. Negotiation is a highly stylized ritual. Good lawyer/negotiators are sensitive to the nuances of that ritual and are able to promote their clients' substantive goals without shattering the other parties' expectations that the ultimate agreement will seem fair."
During Lehman's four years with the firm, "he was recognized by partners and clients alike as one of the firm's superstars," observes Professor Leon Irish, a former member of Caplin & Drysdale who is also on the Michigan faculty now. Irish recalls once assigning Lehman the job of analyzing the pros and cons of complex estate planning alternatives. Within a short time, Irish notes, "Jeff presented a dazzling computer analysis which projected the after-tax consequences of each of the alternatives over a 20-year time span."
Private practice offered Lehman ample opportunities for pro bono work, an activity he hopes to continue in Ann Arbor. The major portion of his pro bono work involved working with individual poor clients seeking Social Security disability benefits. He also had primary responsibility for preparing an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of 72 Nobel-Prize-winning scientists in the recent Establishment Clause case involving the teaching of "creation-science" in public schools.
Private practice also proved accommodating to the needs of the Lehman family, which currently includes two children. During their last two years in Washington, Jeff cut back to a part-time schedule with his firm, while Diane began practicing with a smaller firm 20 hours per week. "Despite the fact that we were the first part-time associates at our firms, we were extremely gratified to discover how flexible and supportive both firms were," said Lehman. "And the arrangement left us feeling pretty relaxed and confident about our relationship with our children - enough so that we were able to take on a foster child for six months until she was adopted."
Although Lehman found his work in Washington both "challenging and fun," he always expected to return to academia. "What has always drawn me back," he explains, "is the autonomy professors enjoy to determine which problems they will study." For Lehman those problems include the tax laws and the welfare laws. He is presently teaching a section of the traditional course in basic personal income taxation. This winter he will teach a survey course on welfare law, and a seminar on wealth redistribution. The seminar will explore the philosophical question of whether wealth ought to be redistributed, as well as more concrete questions about how to manage the economic and social side effects of a redistributive program.
-- From the University of Michigan Law School's Law Quadrangle Notes, V. 32, Iss. 01 (Fall 1987).
Lehman served as Dean of the Michigan Law School from 1994-2003. In 2003, Lehman left Michigan to become the President of Cornell University.