A True ‘Renaissance man’

Leslie Ridgeway • February 7, 2024
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The USC Gould School of Law community mourns the passing of esteemed Professor W. David Slawson, Torrey H. Webb Professor Emeritus of Law, on July 18. Slawson was an important and influential member of the law school faculty for nearly four decades, interrupting his teaching only once, to serve as general counsel of the Price Commission in the Federal Economic Stabilization Program in 1971. That is just one example of Slawson’s far reaching impact on the world around him.

Slawson’s broad curiosity about the world was reflected in his career at the law school. Though ostensibly an expert in contract law, his fellow faculty remember his willingness to teach a variety of courses, including antitrust, administrative law, agency and insurance. His students and colleagues certainly benefited from the care and insightfulness he brought to his teaching and scholarship.

“He is a true Renaissance man,” said then-Dean Scott Bice — one of Slawson’s former students — in the 2005 issue of USC Law Magazine. “Few faculty have taught as wide a range of classes, and Dave’s willingness to do so was a testament to his dedication to our students’ needs.”

Over the course of his remarkable career, Slawson was a guiding force in historical events, including serving on the Warren Commission, charged with investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; working as attorney-advisor with the U.S. Department of Justice for two years where he helped write the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and advising renowned labor activist Cesar Chavez about the legality of the grape boycott under antitrust laws.

After graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College, Slawson earned a master’s degree in theoretical physics at Princeton University, where he was also a National Science Foundation fellow. It was there he realized that physics, for him, was too limiting. As he told USC Law Magazine, “Not until I got to grad school did I realize that in studying physics, my most likely fate was to work on very complicated mathematical problems, such as the make-up of distant stars. It seemed very isolating and not the kind of life I wanted. But I didn’t know what else to do.”

So, he joined the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1956, and during this period, visited a friend in law school while on a leave and sat in on some classes. He later watched a university moot court competition, chatted with the law school librarian, and something clicked. Upon his discharge, he entered Harvard Law School on the G.I. Bill and earned his LLB in 1959.

He was working at a private firm in Denver when he was tapped for the Warren Commission. That experience Professor David Slawson remembered for influential research, wide-ranging curiosity, generosity pointed him toward teaching. “I thought that being a law professor would give me the freedom to explore a variety of subjects,” Slawson commented.

Slawson will always be associated with thoughtful change and transformative action. He came to USC in 1967, arriving around the same time as Martin Levine, George Lefcoe and Christopher Stone, part of an academic movement to revolutionize law education with a greater focus on multidisciplinary teaching. His scholarship in contract law is widely cited by fellow legal scholars, including his co-founding (with Professor Robert F. Keaton) of the contracts doctrine of legal expectations. He is also remembered for his noted books, Binding Promises: The Late 20th Century Reformation of Contract Law, and The New Inflation: The Collapse of Free Markets.

“His article ‘Standard Form Contracts and Democratic Control of Lawmaking Power,’ published in the Harvard Law Review in 1971, remains one of the most important articles on contracts of adhesion,” says Professor Greg Keating. “It’s a landmark on the subject.”

Slawson spent his retirement, characteristically, exploring his interests that included research and writing. He will be remembered for his generosity and reflectiveness with his fellow faculty.

“Dave embodied a rare combination of wisdom and warmth,” says Professor Dan Simon. “He was a perfect mentor — thoughtful, sharp, generous, unassuming and kind. I will always cherish the stabilizing and soothing effect that he had on the faculty. It is an honor to have been his colleague.”

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