Faculty Close-Up: Professor Trachtman


Joel P. Trachtman, a distinguished scholar in the field of international trade law, is visiting this semester from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is teaching the HLS course, “The Law of International Trade.” David Baharvar conducted the following interview for The RECORD.

How would you describe yourself as a scholar of international trade law? Where do you fit, ideologically and politically, in the spectrum of current scholarship in the field?
My involvement with international trade law came from an interest in international business regulation and the allocation of jurisdiction over business. I realized that in order to pursue that interest I would need to pursue a greater understanding of the law of international trade. It turns out that these concerns have been a growing area of attention in international trade law. The key question in my mind has always been, “As a teacher and scholar, what do you add to the field?” I believe very much in what Kant once said, that without a theory, we are blind. Part of my scholarship has focused on adapting law and economics theorywhich I see as a strong source of social-scientific tools — to the field of international law. The other half focuses on doctrinal international trade law issues, where I have tried not just to describe, but to be analytical, using these tools. Though I know I don’t always succeed, I try to separate my professional concerns on international trade and other issues from my views as an individual and as a citizen. While I accept the critical legal studies position that it is impossible to do so all of the time, I try nonetheless. I tend toward a positivist view of international law, based on normative individualism. This means that my normative perspective often, but not always, simply leads to the enforcement of the law as written. But I also think it is important to use analytical tools to show the causes and effects of particular legal rules, and I feel this is an important critical function. For example, one of my current projects seeks to focus on the relationship between current international trade law rules and poverty.

You graduated with a degree from HLS in 1980. How was your experience as a student here?
I enjoyed my time at HLS immensely. There is an amazing concentration of intelligent, skilled people here to learn with. One of my roommates in my 2L year was David Kennedy, now a professor of international law here. I vividly remember taking Henry Steiner’s course on transnational legal problems together with David. He always had a perspective on the topic of the day that I found intriguing and that I hadn’t seen in the materials myself.

You’ve also spent time at the London School of Economics & Political Science. How does the HLS environment compare to other schools?
I did not have the sense to do a joint degree while I was at HLS, though I knew of some opportunities such as the Fletcher School. I admired Fletcher very much then, and it’s probably even more of a useful program today than it was at that time. But I was one of those people who wanted to get out there into the working world and do things as soon as possible, so I didn’t want to stay an extra year for a joint degree. That was a mistake.
One advantage of a joint degree with a school like Fletcher or the Kennedy School is that it allows you to obtain a broader set of social science tools. I believe that legal education as doctrinal education is too limited. HLS has a mandate and an ability to do more than that. While it has put more social science into the law school curriculum, it would still be very useful for students to get even more, like a mastery of economics, political science or anthropology. The comparative advantage of legal education is mostly in telling what the law is, but not what the law should be, and other social sciences contribute more to our understanding of what the law should be.

As an undergraduate at Columbia, why did you choose to study political science? When did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer, and why?
I have always been interested in social relations. Psychology, anthropology, how people work together. Political science seemed like the natural place to look into, but I didn’t know that I would go to law school. I had studied at the London School of Economics & Political Science in my junior year, focusing on international relations and international law. I remember asking my international law professor (Rosalynn Higgins, now a judge on the World Court), “Do I have to be a lawyer to do international law?” because I really liked the problems of the subject. She said “yes,” slightly bemused.
I knew that I was interested in social relations but in a sense law school as a professional school for practicing lawyers was a diversion from that interest, that intellectual curiosity about social relationships, especially in the international sphere. I practiced corporate law for nine years at Shearman & Sterling, where I learned a lot, but it was a bit of a diversion from what I’m doing now and the trajectory that I seemed to have in college.

In your experiences as a practicing attorney, what kind of law practice excited you the most and why? The least?
I was mostly a transactional lawyer, dealing with international banking, securities, joint ventures, takeovers, leveraged buyouts, bankruptcies, etc. What I liked most were the highly negotiated transactions where the lawyers would try to present their end and their competitors do the same, and there was a real back-and-forth.

Why did you choose to teach at Fletcher? What is it like there?
Fletcher was a very attractive teaching job for me because it has allowed me to teach only international economic and business law, as opposed to having to teach contracts or torts or banking law as well. To have a complementary match between teaching and scholarship is Nirvana. I don’t have to spend time working on things to teach that aren’t going to be useful for my scholarship. And my scholarship provides me with new ideas, understandings and information for my teaching. What’s more, something that I’ve come to appreciate is that Fletcher is a truly interdisciplinary school. The whole idea of a school like Fletcher is that you look at international problems from economic, historical, political and legal perspectives, and I think that’s a great approach to international problems. At Fletcher I’ve found that my colleagues and students prod me to think about things in more ways than I might have had I not been at the Fletcher School. This has changed my scholarship considerably.

What are your highest career aspirations? What are your highest goals, and what would be ideal five or 10 years from now?
Since spending time as academic dean and then interim dean at Fletcher, I am glad that my terminal rank in academia will be “professor.” I am really happy with the way things have turned out for me. I have the privilege to teach at Fletcher and at Harvard Law School, teaching really great students who I think are going to do useful things in the world is a great privilege and opportunity to contribute, and I take it very seriously. The subjects that I’ve studied have intrinsic interest and I like studying them and talking about them. So it’s a pretty nice place to be when your work is also your hobby. There may come a time when I do some international public service, at a place like the WTO. But I really enjoy the independence of a professor. Academic freedom means that I can direct my own studies, and that is very valuable to me. I have tried to engage in public service as an advisor to international organizations like the WTO, the OECD, UNCTAD and APEC.

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