Professor knows ins, outs of federal courts

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

In junior high, Gil Seinfeld thought a career in radiology would be cool. An active kid who broke several bones – fingers, ankle, nose, and toe – he found X-rays fascinating.

Then he wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees.

“I kind of still do, though it seems increasingly unlikely, even though Derek Jeter is becoming markedly less productive and so his hold on the position seems more tenuous,” he says.

But Lady Justice had other plans for him – and since 2005 he has been professor at the University of Michigan School of Law, teaching and writing in the areas of federal courts and jurisdiction.

Born in the Bronx, Seinfeld grew up in a suburb just outside New York City. He recalls that by the time he was 10, people around him assumed he’d be a lawyer some day.

“I imagine this is because I was a somewhat precocious, argumentative, Jewish kid from New York,” he says.  “The assumption made enough sense to me that by the time I entered college, I had a strong feeling I’d end up in law school.”

Seinfeld earned an A.B. in government from Harvard College – a good choice of major for someone with a pre-law sensibility – and earned his J.D., magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School, where he was managing editor of The Harvard Law Review.

He got a lot of positive feedback as a student for his communication skills – both oral and written – an important part of being a successful law student and lawyer.

“I think people are often drawn to participate in activities that make them feel competent, so I’m guessing my attraction to law school was partly motivated by a vague intuition that legal education would play to my strengths,” he says. “The truth is, I think one of the big reasons I went to law school is that, by the time I finished college, I was not remotely interested in having a job.  School had been good to me to that point in my life, and more of the same seemed a whole lot better than the unknown of the real world.”

At the end of his first year in law school, he first got an inkling he was destined for academia.

The light bulb went off on the afternoon of his last final exam, when – on his way to meet friends for a drink – he stopped by the law school bookstore to buy books about law to read over the summer. 

“It struck me as I was walking up and down the aisles that I was the only one in the store and that only a very sick person considers it an act of self-indulgence immediately after first year exams to load up on additional law reading,” he says. “So that was the first time I considered the possibility that I might like studying law enough to make a career out of it.”

Unsure what field to focus on, he waited for some course to grab his attention. And it did.

“I took federal courts from Dick Fallon in the fall of my 3L year and I fell in love with the subject. I think what I like about the field is that it focuses intently on the second-order question of ‘who decides?’ rather than the first-order question of ‘what should the rule be?’ Study of the field also involves a mix of intricate doctrinal plumbing and high-level theory about government design that I find appealing.”

Although Seinfeld clerked for two famous legal figures – Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and for Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court – one family member was less than impressed.

“When I got the Scalia clerkship, I was on the phone with my grandmother and told her the good news. Her reaction – I kid you not – included a phrase that went something like ‘I don’t understand why you can’t find a nice Jewish judge!’  She’s kind of a parody of herself.”

In between these clerkships, Seinfeld was a fellow in the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University.
Immediately prior to joining the U-M Law School faculty, he was an associate at the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr in New York, where he focused on appellate litigation.

His scholarly work has been published in numerous law reviews including the University of Pennsylvania Law Review and the California Law Review.  His most recent publication, which appears in the University of Michigan Law Review, is titled “Article I, Article III, and the Limits of Enumeration.” 

Seinfeld, who serves on the board of the U-M Center for the Education of Women, in 2006 was a recipient of the U-M Law School’s L. Hart Wright Award for excellence in teaching. Thus, it is hardly surprising that his law students have created “The Gil Seinfeld Jurisdiction Fan Club” Facebook page.

“I’ve been very happy in the classroom,” he says. “I will admit that I don’t mind having a captive audience for the ‘Gil Show’ a few times a week. Also, I teach two courses that students tend to take because they feel they have to and not because they want to, and this makes it particularly rewarding when I see students become seriously engaged with, and enthusiastic about, the material over the course of the term.”

Seinfeld views himself as fortunate to have landed at U-M at the precise time that he did. 

“The community of faculty who are in the – more or less – 40-and-under crowd is unusually close-knit,” he says. “I think of many of my colleagues as friends first and colleagues second, and it makes coming to work a real pleasure. 

“All in all, I kind of feel like I’ve won the professional lottery. I get to spend my whole day reading and writing and thinking about stuff I love to read and write and think about. For the most part, I’m the master of my own time. I teach smart students who take their legal education seriously, and my community of colleagues is littered with people I regard as friends … and did I mention they pay me for this?!”

Seinfeld’s wife, Debra Chopp, a Southfield native, is also a member of the law school faculty and teaches in the Pediatric Advocacy Clinic.  The couple has three sons: Jonah, 7, Ilan, 4, and 2-year-old Gabriel.
While the couple now enjoys living in Ann Arbor, the first 6 to 12 months were a difficult adjustment for Seinfeld, who had lived his whole life on the east coast until becoming a Wolverine. 

“I think it was simply because beginnings are hard and it takes time to feel comfortable when you pick up and move to a new place, but at the time, I remember worrying that it was a mistake to come here,” he says. “Now I feel like you couldn’t drag me out of Ann Arbor. My wife and I both love our jobs, we have a wonderful circle of friends, our kids are doing great, and Zingerman’s makes a kick-ass smoked mozzarella sandwich. It’s hard to see why anyone would want to live anywhere else.”

As for spare time hobbies, Seinfeld ’fesses up to “an unhealthy obsession” with baseball, the Yankees in particular.

“My fantasy baseball team takes up an alarming amount of my time, but I’m powerless to fight it,” he says. “I’ve also gotten caught up in the no limit Texas hold ’em poker craze. I play in a regular game with friends of mine here in Ann Arbor and I can’t get enough.”

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