Douglas Baird, Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor in the Law SchoolBy Rob McManamy
Though modesty requires that he downplay the achievement, the fact that Douglas Baird is the first repeat winner of the Graduating Law Students’ Class Award should not be taken lightly. Certainly it is a feat the Class of 2006 appreciates.
“Well, I don’t think of it so much as an honor for me, personally, but as a ‘quality of life award’ for the atmosphere that all of the faculty here try to create,” says Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law.
In 2003, he also won the same Class Award, which specifically goes “to a member of the faculty or staff who made a unique and substantial contribution to improving the quality of student life and who enriched the spirit of community within the Law School.”
But again, Baird stresses that his contributions are not that much more than any of his colleagues. “We all pride ourselves here on having an open-door policy toward our students,” he explains. “So we don’t have our own faculty dining room, or anything like that. We stand in line with them for food in the cafeteria and talk with them in our offices after class.”
It is a passion for the work and the University that he feels forms a unique bond between the Law students and their professors, who make it a point to be as accessible as possible.
This phenomenon is on display every February when the student-run, nonprofit Chicago Law Foundation hosts its annual charity auction to underwrite Law students who donate their summer internships to public interest pursuits. “So, this is an auction where some of our students essentially pay for their classmates to be able to take these types of jobs,’ explains Baird. And the faculty, itself, usually donates most of the items up for bid.
“For instance, Bernie Meltzer, despite being in his 90s, will offer a dinner for six students in his home, which he will host,” he adds. “And every year, Geof Stone will auction off a weekend getaway for students at his summer house on Lake Michigan,”
And a mainstay of the popular student fundraiser is now Baird, himself, who has become a fixture as the ‘celebrity auctioneer.’ In that role, his quick wit and verbal precision meld perfectly into the good-natured salesmanship that is required to make the event a perennial success.
By day, Baird teaches Contracts, Bankruptcy Law and Corporate Reorganizations, all potentially dry subjects that he enlivens with his trademark humor and zeal. “We always tell our students that it doesn’t matter what type of law they end up practicing, as long as they make sure it is something that they feel passionate about,” he says.
Baird’s passion for learning saw him graduate summa cum laude from Yale University in 1975 with a B.A. in English. He followed that up with a J.D. from Stanford University in 1979, where he was elected to the Order of the Coif and served as the managing editor of the Stanford Law Review. Before joining the faculty here in 1980, he was a law clerk to Judge Shirley Hufstedler and Judge Dorothy Nelson, both of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
From 1994 to 1999, Baird also served a full term as Dean of the Law School, an emeritus distinction he now shares with fellow former dean, Stone, who had held the post from 1987 to 1993. “I think it says a lot that Geof and I are both still very active members of the faculty here,” says Baird. “We’re not just washed-up administrators now, playing out the string.”
On the contrary, Baird still sees his role as one that inspires, reassures, urges on and ultimately energizes the student body. Speaking at the annual Midway Dinner on campus this past February, he concluded by asking students to stand and to raise their glasses. “So let me offer a toast to you tonight,” said Baird. “May you pick your next destination well — and may you keep traveling until you can find the place where you can do your best life’s work. Enjoy the journey.”
The Class of 2006 already feels fortunate that its journey included Baird as their tour guide.