Legal Theorist Lawrence Solum To Join Law Faculty

Professor Has Influenced Scholars Over Four Decades
Lawrence B. Solum

Despite looking to the past as an originalist and a fan of Aristotle, legal theorist Lawrence B. Solum has been ahead of his time in much of his scholarly thought. Photo courtesy of Georgetown University Law Center

July 31, 2020

Lawrence B. Solum, a legal theorist at Georgetown University Law Center whose ideas about how to interpret the Constitution and the purpose of law have influenced scholars worldwide, will join the University of Virginia School of Law faculty, starting in August.

Solum’s four-decade academic career, which includes having taught as a visiting professor at UVA Law this past fall, has been largely focused on constitutional theory, procedure and philosophy of law. He is the author of numerous books and treatises, and has published more than 80 articles in law reviews and philosophy journals. A former editor of the Harvard Law Review, he currently edits and publishes his Legal Theory Blog to introduce new concepts by his colleagues working in the field, and to serve as a resource for law students and others.

“Lawrence Solum is a scholar of such extraordinary depth that it’s hard to sum up his many contributions to legal thought in just a few words,” Dean Risa Goluboff said. “He is quite simply one of the country’s preeminent legal and constitutional theorists. He is also as generous a scholar and teacher as he is influential. He has already made a mark on both faculty and students as a visitor at the Law School last year, and we are so excited that he is now joining us permanently.”

Solum is an originalist, seeking to divine the meaning of the language in the Constitution as it was understood at the time of its creation, more than 200 years ago. Integral to his personal approach is “the idea that originalists should employ all of the resources of linguistics and the philosophy of language in order to rigorously investigate what the constitutional text meant,” he said.

In 2017, he testified before Congress in accordance with his views as part of the confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

But what makes Solum different than many of his originalist peers is that he’s not a conservative, nor does he believe that the originalism school of thought always translates as contrary to a progressive judiciary. His research has found that originalism sometimes leads to liberal and progressive outcomes, as he reveals in his article “Surprising Originalism.”

Despite looking to the past, Solum has been ahead of his time in much of his research.

In the early 1990s, he wrote the first article to predict the widespread application of artificial intelligence for numerous legal functions traditionally performed by human lawyers, titled “Legal Personhood for Artificial Intelligences.”

“The idea was, we may reach a point where the law will grant legal personhood to artificial intelligences that would have sufficient capacity to perform the functions of other legal persons,” he said, giving as an example the ability to execute the terms of a trust. “No one had considered the possibility. This article has given rise to an entire literature on the legal implications of artificial intelligence in many, many fields.”

He noted that, today, the creation of work product by AI is a common occurrence, and that the European Union has devised a legal framework to recognize it, as he predicted.

Solum also co-authored an article in the 2000s, “An Economic Analysis of Domain Name Policy” (with Karl M. Manheim), that influenced the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, to expand its set of top-level domain names and introduce an auction scheme for allocation.

In addition to researching and commenting on specific aspects of the law, Solum has an overarching view of the function that law should serve, which he calls “virtue jurisprudence.” It’s based on the teachings of Aristotle and inspired by one of his mentors, the moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who is famous for having created the “trolley problem” (a thought experiment in which one must choose between intentionally killing one person to save a group of other people, or failing to intervene and letting the group die).

“When we are thinking about what the law should be, we should think hard about the effect of law on character,” Solum said. “We should create the conditions in which human beings can acquire the virtues — the human excellences, and the capacity that enables them to flourish — to live the best possible life they can.”

He said the idea of promoting virtue through law was one that had been neglected in jurisprudence for decades, if not hundreds of years, until he explored it in his writings.

“When I began, I was the only person who had this approach, but now there are anthologies and books, and they usually give a nod to my work,” he said.

Solum said teaching is a joyful way to share theories like these, as well as his accumulated knowledge and insights, while also allowing him to learn new things based on his interactions with students.

“I love teaching, and especially enjoy teaching first-year law students,” he said. “Even after 35 years, I still prepare for several hours for each class I teach, and I learn new things almost every time from almost every class. My goal is to teach a first-year class in such a way that the students acquire the ability to say new things and make new arguments about the cases and to teach me about the cases.”

Professor Deborah Hellman, who is also a legal philosopher, led the faculty committee that invited Solum to visit. She said hiring Solum is a boon for the Law School community.

“I am so excited that Lawrence Solum will be joining the UVA faculty,” Hellman said. “He’s a world-renowned legal philosopher with an expertise in the application of philosophy of language to constitutional and legal theory. His work, like his mind, is extraordinarily careful and nuanced. I’m sure both the faculty and students will learn so much from him.” 

Solum earned his J.D. magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, having previously earned his B.A. with highest departmental honors in philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles. He clerked for Judge William A. Norris of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He also worked at the law firm Cravath, Swaine, and Moore in New York before academia.

Solum said he knew he wanted to be a constitutional law professor at the age of 14. He was inspired on his path after hearing a recording of a young Laurence Tribe, the future Harvard law professor and co-founder of the American Constitution Society. Tribe’s performance helped his Harvard team win the Intercollegiate National Debate Championship in 1961.

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