Interview with Eugene Volokh, Un-American Legal Conspirator


We don’t interview many professors at Bitter Lawyer. Period. They’re generally rather dry and not really our bag.

UCLA Law professor and former Supreme Court clerk Eugene Volokh seems an obvious exception. In addition to his commanding presence in legal academia, Volokh is also the founder and co-author of The Volokh Conspiracy, a blog that covers law and public policy with a conservative/libertarian bent.

But there are tons of those types of blogs, you say? What makes this one so special? To that, we answer: Volokh has daily traffic of 25,000 unique visitors each weekday. (Booya.) His love of guns also piqued our interest—as well as his background as a twelve-year-old computer prodigy and his unique brand of humor.

We recently caught up with the USSR-born Volokh to find out his favorite Glock, whether political partisanship is really a factor in SCOTUS clerkships, and what professors really think of gunners.

So, is it true that you’ve organized field trips to a Los Angeles area shooting range for some of your students?

Yes, as part of my Firearms Regulation Policy seminar, which I’ve taught five times (four times at UCLA and once at George Mason University). Some of the students in that class knew a lot about guns, but others didn’t, and I thought they needed to know the basics. I also sometimes donated a trip with me to the shooting range (and always some accompanying gun safety instruction) for our school’s Public Interest Law Foundation auction.

Are you a good shot?

I’m a pretty decent shot, when shooting at stationary targets that aren’t too far away. Moving targets? Too hard for me, sorry to say.

What are you packing?

In Los Angeles, concealed carry licenses are nearly impossible to pack, so I don’t “pack” in the sense of carrying. But I like Glocks, especially the Glock 17.

We talk to a lot of law students, and if there’s one universally shared sentiment, it’s that they despise gunners. How do professors really feel about gunners?

Imagine you’re a professor. You ask the class a question. The response: Dead silence.

You wait. Still silence. Then you wait some more.

Someone raises his hand and gives an answer. You feel happy. You feel some respect towards the person who offers the answer. (You feel some respect even if the answer is wrong since the person was brave enough to try; you feel even more if the answer is right.) You also feel annoyed by the silent students. Did they not do their reading? Are they not paying attention? Or if they do know the answer, are they deliberately free-riding on the effort (and willingness to risk public embarrassment) of their classmates?

Law school classes are deliberately aimed to be interactive, and not just lectures. They only work if students are willing to interact. Those who do that are pulling their share of the load.

Then along come the class evaluations, and inevitably some students write as one of the criticisms of the class, “Some students dominated the class discussion.” Well, duh. If only 10 students out of 80 are willing to talk, then those 10 students will “dominate the class discussion.” But the only way to solve that is by having the other 70 students be willing to talk. But they aren’t—and then they complain about a problem that they themselves caused, by their silence.

Now of course I’d prefer it if more students talked. If I have several raised hands to choose from, I’ll choose first the students who have talked less than the others. But if only one hand is raised, that’s the person I’ll call on.

And of course some student participation can be counterproductive… For instance, if it digresses unduly from the topic. If you want to limit the term “gunner” to such counterproductive class participation, then, by definition, it’s bad. But if you’re asking more broadly about students who frequently participate in class discussions, then I just wish more students were like them.

Also, my sense is that most students learn better when they actively participate, so I think that participating is actually good for those who participate, as well as being good for class discussion.

The Volokh Conspiracy has got to be one of the more ominous-sounding legal blogs out there. In fact, it kind of sounds like a Robert Ludlum title. Why did you decide to pair your surname with “conspiracy”?

Well, when Sasha [my brother] and I decided to add more co-bloggers to the Volokh Brothers [our blog’s original name], we needed a good group title. I first thought of “Volokh Group,” but then I realized I was likely borrowing from the “McLaughlin Group.” Then I thought of “Volokh Gang,” but realized that was probably influenced by “The Capital Gang.” Then I hit on Conspiracy. It seemed original. It was amusingly absurd (in my view), since who publicly advertises that they are a conspiracy? And it indirectly echoed the “Jewish Conspiracy” (Sasha and I are Jewish, as are many of our co-bloggers) and the “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” (remember that label?).

So it amused me and had some small, but nonzero, chance of amusing others—generally the test I use for on-blog humor. Plus, it was memorable.

There are now about twenty contributors to the blog. How do you find them?

That is a Head Conspirator top secret. I could tell you, but then I’d have to distributed-denial-of-service you.

You’re very well known as legal scholar specializing in the First Amendment, but you’re also a publisher. Put your publisher cap on for a second. Suppose someone sues you for a media tort. Who’s on your short list to represent you and The Volokh Conspiracy? Why them?

Is it an easy case that’s a sure winner for me? If so, I’d do it myself—not just to save money, but for the fun [of it] and for the blog fodder. Plus, if it heads to the Supreme Court, I’d get a Supreme Court argument. (Unlikely, but, hey, a man can dream.) On the other hand, if it’s likely to head to the Supreme Court, it’s probably not such a sure winner for me. (Uh-oh.)

So if I need a real lawyer, I’d approach my colleagues at Mayer Brown, where I’m a part-part-part-part-time Academic Affiliate. The Mayer people are first-rate, as many impartial sources agree. Plus, I’d hope they’d consider poor little academic me as a worthy pro bono candidate.

There was a recent article in The New York Times about growing partisanship among former Supreme Court Clerks. As a former Supreme Court Clerk, what are your feelings?

I’m always hesitant of claimed trends: One can’t find a trend unless one, first, has a good sense of what’s happening now, and, second, has a good sense of what was happening in the past. Figuring out what’s actually happening among the clerks—and among their likely employers—is hard enough today, but harder still in retrospect.

My sense is that there has always been both non-ideological professionalism and ideological preference in Justices selecting clerks, in clerks selecting post-clerkship jobs, and in hiring decisions by some post-clerkship employers (chiefly government offices, but also in some measure universities; probably not so much for law firms).

I doubt that it has changed much over time. But maybe I’m mistaken. As I said, one would have to have a good deal of good data to figure that out, and I don’t have it—I’m just skeptical that others do as well.

You started working as computer programmer at age 12. What were you working on? Do you still write code in your spare time?

That’s right; I started by writing some financial applications software for an L.A. real estate company, and then I worked for six years at various other companies, mostly writing systems software. But at the same time, I wrote systems software for the HP 3000 (a large business minicomputer), and my father and I started a small software company to sell that software. It’s still in business, though I haven’t written much code in the last few years.

Lawyers, as a whole, are not the most tech-savvy bunch. Why?

Well, they say that lawyers are college graduates who didn’t like blood and didn’t like numbers. Technology isn’t mostly about numbers, but it does call for more of a scientific temperament than most lawyers have.

Given your early aptitude for writing computer code, you probably could have been a Silicon Valley tycoon by now. Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

I decided that I wanted to lead a semi-public life: Write op-eds, write amicus briefs, argue on talk shows, testify before legislatures, and so on. And who gets to do that? Lawyers. Fortunately for me, I managed to get precisely what I wanted.

We found a 1993 note in the Yale Law Review that you authored with Judge Alex Kozinski, where you wrote, “Yiddish is quickly supplanting Latin as the spice in American legal argot.” Why do you think that is?

Yiddish terms are kind of funny. Don’t ask me why—maybe it’s the sound, maybe it’s the connection to generations of comedians, maybe we Jews and things connected with us are just a funny topic. Not very funny, but a little funny; and that’s often enough to get them used when someone is trying to spice things up.

It’s obviously a very tough job market out there for young lawyers. What do you tell your students who seek career advice?

1) Get good grades. 2) Try for law review, and for a clerkship. 3) Beyond that, ask someone who actually knows the way law firm hiring works.

Read more interviews and Bitter Success.

18 Comments

  1. Alma Federer

    January 11, 2010 at 4:00 am

    Now THIS is the kind of man I deserve; not the hoardes of losers that seem to parade their way to my doorstep every day!  Why is it that there are so many loser guys out there always sniffing around me trying to get me to go out with them?  I do not understand how these guys think they can compete with a smart, good looking guy like this.  How can I contact this professor?  He seems very smart, and has a hobby that does NOT include drinking beer and ogling semi-naked cheerleaders.  On Saturday, I was walking on the street when three drunken slobs spilled out of a sports bar and started slobbering all over me.  They thought that because the Jets won a football game that I would provide them with sexual favors.  I told the policeman about it and he just laughed.  I guess he also thought that anything goes if the Jets win?  I am sure that this professor did not get drunk over a football game.  I am hoping that he is interested in a beautiful girl like me who also has brains and virtue.  He does live in California, but mabye he can move to NYC for me and work at Columbia or NYU.

  2. BL1Y

    January 11, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Professors can be regular guys just like…well, regular guys.  And, that means drinking and watching sports and getting drunk and celebrating when your team wins, or just getting drunk when they lose.

  3. BPD

    January 11, 2010 at 9:35 am

    This guy takes his students to the gun range for his class on gun laws. Does he take them to the ER to get the other side of the story?

  4. Frank

    January 11, 2010 at 10:55 am

    Get real, Alma. You’re still a cow.

  5. 2L Gunner

    January 11, 2010 at 10:58 am

    He’s right. I wouldn’t talk so much if someone, ANYONE, said anything at all. I know people hate me for always raising my hand, but the solution is simple: TALK. It won’t hurt you, people!

  6. Lawskol4

    January 11, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Professors are regular guys. liked his interview

  7. Norm

    January 11, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Awesome interview.

  8. Carl

    January 11, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Thanks. I own a glock.

  9. Lee

    January 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    He’s one snarky prof. Love it.

  10. Guano Dubango

    January 11, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Alma, I have volunteered to escort you as a date, yet you go after this professor who lives in California?  He will not do for you what I will do for you.  Heck, I would teach at a TTT law school for you, even in NYC.  But you ignore my advances?  He is from Soviet Union, I am from Ghana.  What difference does it mean?  I can provide for you economically, all you need do is bear me children.  Think about what I am offering you.  You cannot go wrong.

  11. Jethro

    January 11, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    Oh Guano. No mas!

  12. Tex

    January 11, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Guano have you had your sperm checked? Are you sure it can bear children?

  13. Anonymous

    January 13, 2010 at 12:22 am

    I got my boyfriend a Glock for Christmas and live in LA.  Liberal, who?

  14. Moss

    January 13, 2010 at 2:42 am

    I spent a good deal of my time in law school trying to not kill my classmates.  I found their comments stupid, misleading, and self-righteous.  I was often afraid to speak up in class for fear of launching into a expletive filled diatribe about my classmates’ opinions.

    Plus if you said the wrong thing in a class discussion, these morally superior students would call you a Nazi outside of class.  Fortunately, I witnessed that in another student and didn’t have to experience it myself. 

    Student discussions (outside of seminars) often spread stupidity and ignorance.  The student discussions turned my Contracts class into a course on Promissory Estoppel.  The test was still on Bar Exam style Contracts law.  Most of the students got Cs.  I studied on my own and got a fairly high score.
    Eventually, I just stopped going to class and studied on my own.  A & Bs.

  15. Beldar

    January 13, 2010 at 10:07 am

    I’m a huge fan of Professor Volokh, but his preference for the Glock 17 is typical of a law professor—the kind of choice you’d make after applying “balancing tests.” Police departments and the military have made the same mistake.  The 9mm ammo is comparatively cheap and available, permits a high capacity without bulk and weight and recoil, and otherwise scores high marks in a comparative analysis.  The problem is, it isn’t nearly as likely to drop and stop the committed shooter who’s trying to kill YOU.  Since that’s the sin qua non for a personal defensive weapon, I respectfully dissent from his preference, and would instead choose something in a .45 caliber.

  16. Beldar

    January 13, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Freudian typo?  “sin qua non” –> “sine qua non,” mea culpa.

  17. Glock

    January 13, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    the professor is married.

  18. Bullitt

    January 13, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    I’m glad that Volokh takes his firearms regulation students to the range.  If you’re going to talk about guns, their power, and if/why they should be banned, you should at least have some background.  Words cannot describe the feeling you get when you hold a real gun, feel the hard metal, fire it, feel the kick, the compression, hear the retort, etc.  Unless you have experienced it firsthand, you have no business talking about it.  That being said, I’ve listened to Prof. Volokh speak about gun control, and I must respectfully disagree.  Strict gun control is absolutely necessary.

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