In the past 50 years American law schools have changed dramatically, admitting diverse students, adding emerging fields and facing new economic challenges. But in those 50 years, many things have remained consistent, including Charles L. Knapp, Joseph W. Cotchett Distinguished Professor of Law.
Beginning his academic career in 1964 as a young lawyer, Knapp took a position at NYU (his J.D. alma mater) and has never missed a semester since (except for the occasional sabbatical). The son of a well-respected local judge in Zanesville, Ohio, Knapp got his B.A. from Denison College and practiced law for four years after law school before eventually becoming an expert and elder statesman in his field.
“He’s made his mark in the field of contracts law,” said Professor H.G. Prince, who studied under Knapp at NYU. Speaking about Knapp’s legendary contribution to the field -- the casebook, Problems in Contract Law, Prince said: “He really put his imprint on the book and did some new things when it came out in 1976. He made greater use of problems and had a wide selection of cases and materials. And he has a wonderful writing style.”
Prince is now a co-author, along with Professor Nathan Crystal, of Knapp’s widely used casebook, currently in its seventh edition. Prince is also the organizer of the October 24 symposium to commemorate Knapp’s five decades of teaching.
The casebook is evocative of Knapp’s intellectual approach, said Professor Dodge, who has known Knapp since they both arrived at UC Hastings in the late 1990s. “It’s all encompassing, and it has ended up shaping generations of law students,” he said.
Dodge explained that contracts is the quintessential law school course, cemented in popular culture with the 1976 hit film, “The Paper Chase,” in which a Harvard Law school contracts professor -- the stern, demanding Professor Kingsfield -- tells his students that they come into his class with a skull of mush, but they leave thinking like lawyers. “Kingsfield is therefore who you expect your law school contracts professor to be, and Knapp is nothing like Kingsfield!” Dodge said.
With an endearing smile and youthful looks that belie his age (in a Wildean aside, he admits that the portrait in his attic is looking quite decrepit), Professor Knapp is an amiable presence on campus, widely seen as a strong supporter of younger scholars and a clear and cogent instructor. Besides the seminal casebook, Knapp has authored numerous influential articles in the field, including one pivotal 1969 NYU Law Review article on enforcing the contract to bargain. The article addressed the situation that arises when preliminary negotiations give rise to a mutual commitment to bargain in good faith to complete the contract. “It’s about agreeing to agree to work it out,” explained Professor Dodge. “He was saying that courts should enforce that parties have agreed to negotiate in good faith and that the court can hold the parties to an obligation to negotiate in good faith.”
Knapp is also an accomplished piano player and musical theater buff, and has previously performed with other professors at the UC Hastings cabaret. A father of two daughters and grandfather of five, Knapp lost his wife of 38 years shortly before he came out to teach at UC Hastings in 1997. He frequently sees his family, who live on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and lives with his partner of 10 years in San Francisco.
The upcoming symposium on October 24, coincidentally scheduled for 2 days after Professor Knapp’s birthday, will focus on his contract scholarship specialties. UC Hastings professors and other Bay area and national law professors will participate on four panels: The State of Contract Law, The Role of Casebooks in the Future of Contract Law, the Politics of Contract Law and The Future of Unconscionability as a Limit on Contract Enforcement.
“Basically we are talking about where we are now and where are we going in the field of contracts,” said Professor Prince. The Marvin Anderson Lecture will be presented during the luncheon by Professor Keith Rowley of UNLV.
Discussion will also certainly turn to Knapp’s focus on justice issues in contract law. “He’s always been concerned with being fair to people who have bargaining disadvantages,” said Prince.
And over 50 years, Knapp says that he has always kept up his interest in scholarship and in the classroom. “Teaching is fun!” he exclaimed. “You’re in a room full of really smart people and they are motivated to get what you have to give, and they’re trying to understand what’s happening on three to four different levels: as law students, as potential lawyers or even judges, and as citizens -- consumers of the legal system.”
Register here: https://uchastings.webconnex.com/knapp