Dan Coenen, University Professor and Caldwell Chair in Constitutional Law in the School of Law, prepares students for work in the law by challenging them to think critically, to communicate effectively and to represent clients with creativity and compassion.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I grew up in Wisconsin and received a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin. I then went on to get my J.D. degree from Cornell University. I am now a full professor in the law school and have the usual responsibilities of a full professor in teaching, research and service. The courses I teach include first-year “Contracts” and upper-level courses in constitutional law.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in 1987. At the time I was practicing law in Charlotte, not far from my wife Sally’s hometown of Greenville, S.C. I had been practicing law in Charlotte since 1981 and figured that, if I were ever going to move into law teaching, the time had come. I looked at several schools, but in the end decided that UGA was the place for me. Twenty-seven years later I can say with certainty that that is a decision I have never regretted.
What are your favorite courses and why?
I teach in two very different areas—contract law and constitutional law. Like most lawyers and many citizens, I have a fascination with constitutional law and the Supreme Court’s work in that field. But I have to say that I enjoy contract law just as much. One reason may be that my primary mentor in law school was a contracts teacher, and he inspired in me an enduring fascination with the subject. Also, it turns out that there are many interesting overlaps between contract law and constitutional law because both involve, to a large degree, the recurring problem of interpreting murky written texts.
What interests you about your field?
Everything—but especially the chance to teach my students about the skills of lawyering. In constitutional law, I find especially interesting the many tools the Supreme Court uses to give meaning to ambiguous constitutional provisions—for example, by exploring the underlying history of a constitutional clause or whether the actual operation of a challenged statute is closely aligned with the legislative goal said to justify the statute. Sometimes the court appears to take a distinct approach to interpreting a particular constitutional provision, such as the Free Speech Clause or the Equal Protection Clause. Then later, without ever stating that it is doing so, it applies the same strategy in a totally different context—for example, in interpreting the Just Compensation Clause or the First Amendment’s religion clauses. I have always found it exciting to discover these below-the-surface connections and to think about where they might lead.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
What I have found most fulfilling during my time at UGA are the day-in-day-out interactions I have had with my students. Will Rogers once said that he never met a person that he didn’t like. When it comes to students, I can honestly say that I’m like Will Rogers. I truly have never met a student that I didn’t like.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
The biggest connection I see is this: All good lawyers must engage in high-level, rigorous, systematic thinking. And they also must be able to present whatever analysis they come up with in a clear, understandable, well-crafted legal text. In doing my own research and writing, I try to think and write in these ways. And that process continuously helps to reinforce and clarify for me the sorts of skills and attitudes I want to cultivate in my students.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
Here are some of the things that I hope that my students will take away from my classes: a close attentiveness to the distinctive facts of each case; the capacity to make highly contextual arguments based on those distinctive facts and the governing law; the ability to anticipate, to articulate and to respond to counterarguments that an opponent or a court might raise; and a mature sense of how to work within a diverse community with a recognition that people of goodwill often approach the same problem in many different ways. I must say, however, that these items represent only the tip of the iceberg. Toward the end of the last semester, I prepared for my students a written list of the skills that they were working on, all at the same time, during their journey through law school. And that list included 98 separate items.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Enjoy the company of other people. I especially value spending time with my wife Sally and our three children, Michael, Amy and Claire.
Community/civic involvement includes…
Over the years, I’ve been engaged in many volunteer and government-related activities. I’ve valued all these chances to work together with good and committed people. Probably my favorite community activity involved being a youth-league basketball coach. Over a stretch of about seven or eight years, I coached something like a dozen teams on which my three children played at various times during their early years.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I recently read and enjoyed the books “Game Change” and “Double Down,” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, about the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. One reason these books struck a chord with me is that they teach the lesson that even the most powerful individuals inevitably must deal with much the same set of foibles, shortcomings, challenges, confrontations and twists of fate that ordinary people confront in their own lives. As to movies, one personal favorite is “The Big Chill.” That movie has a special place in my heart partly because every summer my wife and I get away to the North Carolina mountains for our own reunion with a small group of longtime friends. And, for us, that get-together is always a highlight of the year.
Proudest moment at UGA?
As I sit here, I would say that my proudest moments have come in the classroom as I’ve watched students, whom I’ve been pushing very aggressively, make their way to a new and heightened level of understanding and achievement. I am a strong believer in the Socratic method of law school teaching, and that method involves challenging students to work hard on the skills of thinking on their feet and dealing with often-unanticipated “curveball” challenges to arguments they make and ideas they express. This is tough work, but the payoff comes—both for class members and for me—when student speakers are able to stand their ground, demonstrating a capacity to think and to talk in the sort of ways that mark a skillful lawyer.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Hmm … I like the Green Bay Packers. I like The Beatles. I like traveling with my wife Sally. I like giving toasts on special occasions. I like word games. I like watching sports events with friends. I like the Thai Spoon restaurant. I like the positive laughter that good and relaxing times spent with others can bring. I like the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle. I like taking road trips with my kids. I like the work of local artist Harold Rittenbury. I like sing-alongs. I like our family dog Clyde. In years gone by, I liked practicing law. But I like teaching law even more. And I am very grateful to the University of Georgia for giving me the chance to do that.
Originally published on Oct. 12, 2014