Appreciation: Professor Robert B. Seidman RIP: 1920-2014

On April 3, 2014, the world lost a true giant of the public interest. Professor Robert B. Seidman, of Boston University law school died of heart attack in his home in Milton, MA at age 94. With him was his wife of more than 65 years, co-author, co-professor, and all around partner in every sense of the word, Professor Ann Seidman. You can read a far too abbreviated obituary here, see his CV here, and a list of publications here.  None of these, of course, come even vaguely close to capturing Bob’s importance in the world generally, or in my life personally.

I’ll insert this video here where Bob and Ann explain their work. I try to put some of what Bob did and what he taught me below  . . .



I had the privilege of studying with Bob and Ann when I was a law student at Boston University School of Law, and worked in their legislative drafting clinic — first as a student, then as an editor. But even before that, I knew Bob and Ann from childhood. They and my parents became friends when I was about 8 (Bob and my father started teaching at BU Law at close to the same time and shared an office suite), and we spent lots of time together. My father and I learned how to sail from Bob and Ann.  I learned my first Child ballads and sea shanties from them, acquiring my lifelong interest in traditional folk music.

Bob was one of the most well rounded people I have ever met. And one of the most passionate people I have ever met — despite managing to always project a calm and unruffled demeanor. He believed hugely in the power of community, whether creating a community among the students in his drafting clinic or in empowering communities to create their own institutions for the development of law.


Law and Social Change

As recounted in this video he and Ann made for BU Law last year, Bob embarked on his life’s work in law and development quite by accident. Bob served in the Coast Guard and the Navy in World War II (although his obituary does not mention it, he served on the Murmansk Convoy). After the war he attended law school and settled into domestic practice, which he found unsatisfying. Recruited by the Ford Foundation, he and Ann went to Ghana to help the new government develop post-colonial institutions.


This began the Seidmans’ lifelong interest in Africa, law and development, and the professional partnership on law and development that would define their lives. It became obvious to Bob early on that for post-colonial Africa, and the developing world generally, to reach its potential, people needed to develop their own legal institutions.  In the course of developing a framework for legal drafting, Bob and Ann became pioneers in the field of Law and Development — the idea that properly drafted laws and legal institutions could positively change the status quo and foster creation of a more equitable and just society.

More importantly, Bob spent a lifetime focused not merely on the theory, but on practical methods for how draft laws that achieved these results and why so many efforts to achieve these ends failed to accomplish their goals. His magnum opus work with Ann (and Nalin Abeysekere) Legislative Drafting For Democratic Social Change: A Manual For Drafters (2001) has been continually updated and translated into multiple languages.


As I learned in legislative drafting, and continue to practice to this day. Law — to the extent it works at all — works by changing human behavior. To address a social problem through law and legal institutions, a legislative drafter needs to understand the underlying social behavior and motivations and determine how a properly drafted law and can shift this behavior to work to a better outcome. In doing this, the drafter must acquire evidence and look carefully at the underlying situation rather than simply accept the conventional wisdom as to cause and effect. A law that simply mandates a particular result — do this, don’t do that — without an understanding of the why the problem exists in the first place will almost invariably fail, and may well make matters worse.


The second major insight of Bob’s approach was that you can look to particular failure points that recur over and over to tell you where the problem lies. Or, as Bob liked to explain: “You can never tell why people obey the law, but you can usually identify why they don’t obey the law.” Armed with the right tools, a legislative drafter can take the facts and develop realistic and pragmatic ways to implement solutions through law and regulation.



Bob The Man, And What I Owe Him.

I can see I’ve made a major mistake trying to explain to people Bob’s major contribution to the field. None of these capture what made Bob such an amazing teacher and force for good. I use the tools I learned in his class pretty much every day in my professional life.

The most important things I learned from Bob had nothing to do with the professional skills. First and most importantly, Bob taught me to enjoy life and things you can do for yourself. Whether it was the pleasure of sailing, or walking in the woods in Maine, or singing to an acoustic guitar by the fire — Bob showed by example the pleasure of living life in the moment and appreciating the gift of being alive, in this place, at this time.

Equally important,  however, was the passion for social justice and the belief that law and the institutions of law can change the world for the better. Social revolutions (both figurative and literal) are born in passion and protest. To transform the revolutionary moment into a sustained social change for the better requires a peculiar marriage of passion and intellect. It is not enough to hate the status quo. To change the world  for the better over the long haul requires an understanding of the status quo that includes why people act the way they do, and what will it take them to act in a better way. While law alone does not provide the answer, an effort to build a just society which ignores the role of law and legal institutions must inevitably slide to ruin as a house without a foundation cannot stand.


Bob lived a tremendous life. He died at age 94 still active in his field, still mentally sharp, physically active. He is survived by Ann, their many children and grandchildren, and the thousands of students they touched around the globe. I will miss Bob tremendously. If I should live life half so well, and accomplish half as much, I will consider myself blessed indeed.


Stay tuned . . .



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