U-M law professor honored with coveted property prize

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Jim Krier, the Earl Warren DeLano professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, has for several decades been an internationally renowned expert and scholar in the field of American property rights. But he calls his career path “serendipity,” landing in his lap after teaching for a couple of years at UCLA in the late 1960s.

“I was asked to teach property, and I agreed – and since law and economics was just starting then as a discipline, I got interested in it and have used it in my work ever since,” he says.

It’s a path that has led Krier to being named this year’s recipient of the Brigham-Kanner Property Rights Prize from the Property Rights Project at William & Mary Law School. Krier, who will accept the prize during October’s Annual Brigham-Kanner Property Rights Conference, is the second U-M Law professor to receive this prize – Henry King Ransom Professor of Law Margaret Jane Radin was honored in 2007 – and Michigan Law is the only school in the nation to have two winners of the prize.

It’s the latest in a long line of accolades for Krier. Not a bad turn of events for a fellow who wasn’t even sure what he wanted to do after earning his bachelor’s degree in economics, with honors, from the University of Wisconsin, then spending two years in the U.S. Army.

Law school seemed a good career choice, and Krier returned to his alma mater to earn his juris doctorate with highest honors, and serve as articles editor of The Wisconsin Law Review. After a year of clerking for the Hon. Roger Traynor, chief justice of the Supreme Court of California, Krier spent two years in the nation’s capital practicing law with Arnold & Porter, a large, international law firm specializing in trial, corporate, and antitrust work.

“It was very exciting because I worked for a very cutting edge firm, and Washington was a great place to live for a couple of years,” he says.

He then headed back to the Golden State, as a professor of law at UCLA, then at Stanford.

“UCLA was a great place to start teaching, and when I was hired in 1969, my first teaching job, there were a bunch of great young faculty hired at the same time, and we really reinforced each other,” he says. “Stanford was a step up for me, and I enjoyed my two years there, but the lure of the good old days at UCLA drew me back there. I spent three more years upon my return there, then came to Michigan – back to the Midwest, where I was born and raised.”

It was in California that he wrote three books.

“At UCLA my first teaching was in environmental law, which was just starting as a field. I had to prepare materials, and they ended up being published as Environmental Law and Policy, one of the very first teaching books in the field, heavy on policy and law and economics.”

Krier says that most of his first decade of writing was devoted to articles on environmental law and policy, plus another book, Pollution and Policy, a study of how California first dealt with the problem of automotive air pollution. Co-authored with Ed Ursin, it was published by the University of California Press in 1977.

“Then, a few years into teaching, I got into property, and early on my late and beloved colleague Jesse Dukeminier asked me to join him in doing a property casebook. The first edition was published in 1981; I’m now working, with new co-authors, on the eighth edition. The book is very widely used.”

Krier also has authored or co-authored many articles, the most recent of which were published in The Harvard Law Review, Supreme Court Economic Review, UCLA Law Review, and Cornell Law Review.

A visiting professor at Harvard Law School, Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and the University of Alabama Law School, Krier presented a lecture on “The Evolution of Property Rights” at Hong Kong University in 2009.

Krier, who has taught courses on contracts, property, trusts and estates, behavioral law and economics, and pollution policy, joined the Wolverine faculty in 1983, and enjoys teaching his U-M Law students.

“They are smart and curious and hard working – or at least the ones I enjoy are! In property in particular, there is a lot of technical doctrine, and a lot of applicable theory, and I try to teach it all with rigor, and some students find that daunting.”

In a U-M Blue Jeans Lecture, “How To Do Law School Right,” Krier joked that the subtitle was “How to Succeed in Law School Without Really Trying,” and that it was a more organized and fuller rendition of his rantings from class. He outlined a program for successful study habits, encouraging students to spend a little less time reading, and a lot more time thinking, then asking questions.

A Milwaukee native, Krier grew up mostly in Watertown, Wis., moving there the summer before starting high school. His 97-year-old mother and one of his two sisters still live there. He enjoys the maize and blue life in Ann Arbor.

“I love the Midwest generally, and Ann Arbor is a wonderful, rather highbrow version of it,” he says. “I grew up with four climates a year and missed them during my decade and a half in California. My wife is from California but really loves Ann Arbor.”

Away from the halls of academia, Krier heads to the links as a recreational golfer and is also a recreational painter – “of pictures, not walls,” he jokes. “And I read a lot, especially lowbrow crime fiction.”