Erwin Chemerinsky – founding dean, UC Irvine

5 minutes with... Erwin Chemerinsky

Erwin ChemerinskyStarting out, what did you expect from a career in law?

I went to law school because I wanted to be a public interest lawyer. I thought that someday I would love to be a law professor. I have been incredibly fortunate in that I have had the chance to do both. For the last 32 years, I have been a law professor, but also have regularly handled pro bono appellate cases. I have tremendously enjoyed every aspect of my career.

What do you consider to have been your big break?

I was incredibly fortunate and got hired to be an Assistant Professor at DePaul College of Law in 1980, just two years after I graduated law school. I was in the right place at the right time. Being a law professor has been a truly wonderful career.

What differences do you see in today’s legal market compared to when you started?

It is clearly a much tougher market. Focusing on legal academia, it is vastly more competitive and harder to get teaching jobs than it used to be. The dramatic increase in faculty candidates with PhDs and having done Visiting Assistant Professorships makes it a far more difficult market. As for lawyers, it is still an economic downturn from what it was, but there are always jobs for excellent lawyers.

What achievement are you most proud of?  

Someday, when I look back, I will say that I am most proud of what I helped create at University of California, Irvine School of Law. But we are still building it and so it is premature to say that is yet an 'achievement'. What I have loved most in my career is the teaching and I am proud of what so many of my former students have accomplished.

"Too many people are incarcerated in this society for too long for non-violent crimes."

What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?

I have lost some cases that haunt me. I represented a man who received a sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole for 50 years for stealing $153 worth of videotapes under California’s three strikes law. I argued it was cruel and unusual punishment and lost 5-4 in the Supreme Court. Hundreds of people remain in prison for minor offenses because of this decision.

What law would you want to change, abolish or create?

I would want to change overcriminalization. For example, I would want to ensure that a third strike has to be a serious or violent offense. I would want to see a significant decriminalization of many drug offenses. Too many people are incarcerated in this society for too long for non-violent crimes.

Who is your legal hero?  

I have many. Clarence Darrow. Earl Warren. William Brennan. They are among the most famous of my heroes.

What career would you have in your second life?

I’d want to be a law professor. If I couldn’t be a law professor or a lawyer, I’d want to be a high school teacher. Well, what I really would want is to be shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, but I doubt I’d have the athletic talent then either. I was once at a conference of law professors and we were all talking about what we would have done if only we could. There were some very famous law professors around the table. All the men said that they wanted to be baseball players and all the women said that they wanted to be rock stars.

How would you like to be remembered?  

A kind and decent person.