Incisive Scholar, sensitive student advisor and keeper of one of the Law School’s messier offices, Hal Lewis retires this fall after joining Mercer 35 years ago.
“He’s devoted to scholarship, but most of all to his students,” says Rebecca McKelvey ’06, a Nashville-based attorney who was lead articles editor for the Law Review, with Lewis as the Review’s faculty advisor, a post he’s held for the past 10 years. “He’s a great professor and an amazing person who is always genuinely interested in students — while we are there, and after we graduate.”
The Walter F. George Professor of Law since 1991, Lewis came to Mercer in 1977. The White Plains, N.Y., native was an undergraduate at Columbia, earned his J.D. at Stanford University and practiced law for five years at a Wall Street firm.
For his first three years in practice he was in a labor and em¬ployment discrimination group, representing management client’s intent on warding off union labor campaigns. (One stark memory: after a day consulting a client battling the Teamsters, his car was raised on a lift to make sure a bomb wasn’t stuck to its underside.)
“After those three years I moved into commercial litigation and was involved in what was then the world’s largest contract dispute involving uranium contract litigation,” Lewis says. That took him to New Mexico, where a lawyer named Harry, repre¬senting the other side, came to court with boots, a string tie, a cowboy hat and a spittoon.
“We suddenly realized that a New York frame of mind was not really going to play too well in Santa Fe,” says Lewis, whose team wound up switching sides and joining Harry to battle “some bad multinational oil companies.”
During those years on the case, as his colleagues rotated, he found himself bringing new members of the team up to speed: “It was, in effect, an informal kind of teaching.” and he liked it very much, which led him to Macon and Mercer.
Over those 35 years, Lewis has also taught at the University of Georgia, Fordham, Washington University and George Mason. “But I always considered Mercer my academic home.”
Among his most satisfying projects at Mercer, Lewis cites being one of the three self-dubbed “woodies” — along with professors Dick Creswell and Jack Sammons — enlisted by then-dean Phil Shelton to create the woodruff curriculum in the late 1980s. Among its innovations was a reduction in class size.
“The process was at times a bit like lawmaking — not something you want to look at too carefully,” Lewis says. “But it was obvious within about three years that the new, smaller student body was do¬ing terrifically. Their performance was immeasurably stronger than the much larger classes we had been required to admit in the 1980s.”
As alumna McKelvey testifies, Lewis has always been interested in his students not only during law school, but also afterwards when they enter the profession.
“Over the years, the faculty have consistently, genuinely been interested in teaching students who really want to make the most of themselves,” he says. “This becomes really evident when those students graduate. We get regular reports from practicing lawyers that our students, upon graduation, hit the ground running.
“What I’m most proud about, when it comes to reflecting on 35 years, is how well our students have done, and how dedicated our faculty has been to assisting them in maximizing their potential.”
Lewis’s favorite classroom subject is employment discrimination. “It’s been a particular pleasure to watch students who, going in, weren’t sure what the course was about and what their interest would be, then to watch a fair number of them decide this was going to become their life’s work.”
Dodson Strawbridge, a 2012 graduate, says, “Not only did Professor Lewis teach the subject incredibly thoroughly, he sparked my passion for the field. I am working in labor and employment law after graduation, thanks in no small part to Professor Lewis’ devotion to this area of law and each of his students.”
And to think that he’s done it all while working from an office whose genteel disorderliness requires two desks to uphold the towers of papers....
Fellow “woody” Creswell says, “One of many things about Hal Lewis that mystifies his colleagues is how he has managed to deliver the steady stream of well-organized and carefully written books and articles ... from an office that reflects none of those characteristics.”
Creswell recalls when a security guard, peering through the typically open door of Lewis’s office, called Lewis at home after midnight to report a case of vandalism.
No. The office always looked that way.
As he eases into retirement, Lewis anticipates some quiet time at the Highlands, N.c., home he shares with his wife, Leslie, a regis¬tered nurse. He’s also looking forward to more frequent visits with his 8-and 10-year-old grandchildren in Arlington, Va. “It will be lovely to run up there, both unexpectedly for fun and as needed.”
Before retirement, he’ll be involved with an Augusta-based literacy and mentoring project created by former student Tanya Jeffords’01, and he hopes to do the same sort of volunteer work in North Carolina. He also intends to continue consulting in employment and commercial litigation cases.
One hopes he will, as well, maintain his famously expansive vocabulary.
“Hal keeps a mental storehouse of obscure words and expressions and sprinkles them sparingly into his conversations,” Creswell says.
“I feel sure he will be one of the few who understand me when I say that I am sad to find that Hal’s talk of retirement is more than a velleity. His ready friendship, excellent teaching and diligent scholarship will be sorely missed.”