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Howard Walter Brill: Game for Law

Posted on December 21, 2011

from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for November 20, 2011

By Rich Polikoff

Howard Brill was an unusually curious boy.

He mourned the end of each school year, wishing that fall wasn’t so far away.

Howard Walter BrillWhen reading Time magazine, he’d circle words he didn’t know and look up their definitions in the dictionary after he finished the article.

So it was only natural that Brill wanted to know more about the people who were legally required to keep their distance from him.

“Where we lived, on the beach side of [Daytona Beach, Fla.], blacks only came over to work,” recalls his sister, Carol Hatfield, of Dade City, Fla. “At 5 o’clock we’d see them all go over to their side of the [Halifax] River.”

It was that curiosity that compelled Brill — after graduating from a segregated high school and a segregated college — to join the Peace Corps and spend more than two years teaching in Nigeria.

And it’s that curiosity that drives Brill today, nearly half a century later, to ask first-year University of Arkansas School of Law students for feedback.

Brill has been the Vincent Foster Professor of Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility since 1998 and has been teaching at the UA law school since 1975, but on this morning he’s simply a friendly face who wants to know how the law school can provide a better experience for the next generation of Arkansas lawyers.

Over coffee and pastries, Brill sits in the middle of a table and lobs questions at the students.

He asks them how the first seven weeks of law school have differed from their expectations and what they would change if they were the dean.

Brill has been having these informal breakfasts for about a decade and will sit through six this semester. It allows him to better know students as individuals and to show them that he cares about them and their educational experience.

“When I’m doing my job as a teacher, I need to be excited, I need to be having fun, and I need to let that be obvious to the students to get them involved,” Brill says. “Education, particularly in law school, should be a shared experience; it should be interactive. I learned that in the Peace Corps.”

After asking his questions, Brill turns the tables, allowing the students to ask him questions about the remainder of their first year. He winds up giving advice on a wide array of subjects, among them summer clerkships and bus schedules at the UA.

Providing expertise to others is nothing new for Brill. He’s a scholar with a wide array of knowledge, the author of two esteemed legal books, and is frequently sought by lawyers around the state of Arkansas for advice.

He’s the go-to person if there’s a question of ethics, says the UAs associate general counsel, Scott Varady, of Fayetteville. “We’ve consulted with him before, and it was very illuminating. He has a very deep knowledge of the law and his various areas of expertise, so its easy to call upon him and get a thoughtful answer.”

Varady has sat through continuing legal education courses taught by Brill. What stood out, he says, was not just the depth of Brill’s knowledge, but the easygoing manner in which he conveyed the information.

That style was evident earlier in the day, before the student breakfast, when Brill taught an 8 a.m. Civil Procedure class. He bantered back and forth with students, going from legal issues to the ongoing baseball World Series, and punctuated the lesson on ancillary jurisdiction with a clip from the movie Legally Blonde.

Brill is consistently engaging with every class he teaches, whether the subject is the Arkansas Constitution, Major League Baseball or the Bible. An introvert by nature, he is transformed when he steps in front of a class.

“He comes alive and he has this sort of secret side to him,” says his wife of 41 years, Katherine Brill. “That’s why he dresses up at Halloween [for class] – why for the Erie Railroad case [Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins], he wears overalls, a train hat and carries a lantern, so he can put on another persona.”

He had enough professors and teachers himself that he didn’t want to be like, so he’s very animated.

Seeking Answers

When law students wanted to start a chapter of the Christian Legal Society at the UA, they went to Brill.

To receive recognition as an official student group, they needed a faculty sponsor. Brill enthusiastically agreed to serve.

That was in 1980. More than 30 years later, Brill is still the adviser of the UA chapter of the Christian Legal Society.

“He said that he would [be the sponsor] on the spot,” recalls lawyer Rick Campbell of Little Rock, a former student of Brill’s and one of the chapters founders. Students have changed, but the idea [remains], that Christian law students are able to meet once a week, an informal thing over doughnuts and coffee, and share Scripture or personal issues.

Howard was always there, but he was not trying to dominate the conversation or be all things to all people. He was just willing to support our efforts.

Faith has always been a major part of Brill’s life. He grew up Lutheran, and today attends University Baptist Church, though he says he tries not to be too denominational.

Brill, 68, has written several articles about the relationship between Christianity and the law.

“Instead of shaping my view of the law, it shapes my view of my role in the law,” Brill says of his faith. “Whatever I do, whether its teaching a class, grading exams, interacting with students, I have to remind myself that everything I do is to serve Jesus Christ.”

A strong sense of faith was one of the many qualities Brill inherited from his parents. They also gave him his intense curiosity, as well as his love of travel.

The late Ed Brill was an affable salesman who moved his family from New Jersey to Vermont when Howard was 5, and to Daytona Beach six years later. He and Howard’s mother, the late Catharine Brill, loved to take long car trips up the East Coast, from Florida to Nova Scotia.

Catharine was a big reader, and she loved to take her children to historical sites. Years later, Howard and his wife would do the same thing with their kids.

Brill taught as a visiting professor at the universities of North Carolina, Illinois, South Carolina and Tennessee when his three children were young. He and Katherine would make good use of these opportunities to explore different parts of the country, visiting battlefields and other historical sites.

Today, the Brill’s children are all grown, but Howard hasn’t lost his sense of adventure. He has taught in Russia four times and in England once.

Back in the United States, he loves to visit state high points (he has been to 40), presidential graves, and baseball stadiums.

“My interest in travel comes in large part from my parents, who took me around and who would have an interest in what’s happening around the world, a curiosity,” Brill says. “It was that, and the call of John Kennedy, that caused me to go into the Peace Corps.”

From 1965-67, Brill was in Sokoto, Nigeria, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. He taught African literature, African history and English in a school of 500 boys.

Afterward, he spent a few months traveling around Africa, at one point summitting Mount Kilimanjaro, before returning to the United States and enrolling in the University of Florida law school.

Brill was a great student, the editor-in-chief of his school’s law review, which afforded him the opportunity to spend a year after graduation clerking for Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals. He spent a year teaching legal writing at the University of Florida, while he and Katherine figured out where they wanted to live.

Brill loved tax law, and dreamed of working for the Internal Revenue Service, but when the IRS offered him a position in their Boston office, the Brills turned it down. They also passed on the IRS’ second offer of Richmond, Va.

“In retrospect, that was a ridiculous decision!” Howard Brill says with a laugh. “Boston is a great place for a young married couple.”

Instead of joining the IRS, Brill accepted a job in 1973 with a small law firm in Rock Island, Ill. He worked all types of cases, giving him great real-world experience he still draws upon today, but it was apparent that teaching was his calling.

So in 1975, he left the firm to take a position as an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas.

“He knew pretty quickly that teaching was just much more fulfilling,” Katherine Brill says. “He was very grateful for the opportunity to have some war stories … because he was able to get some things that would help him in his teaching.”

“That gave him a real desire to do practical things [in the classroom]. He thinks a lot of times education is too theoretical.”

Making It Better

Brill likes to remember the early days.

When Brill was 21 and training for the Peace Corps in Kalamazoo, Mich., he taught summer-school U.S. government to high school students in nearby Battle Creek. At the end of the course, he asked the students to evaluate him.

Brill has held onto those evaluations for more than 46 years, because they remind him of his start in teaching.

“It was fun then; it should be fun now,” Brill says. “I get excited when I come to work every day. If I wasn’t excited, I’d probably stop teaching. I feel fortunate that I’ve been given the opportunity to teach here.”

Keeping it fun for students is a priority for Brill, whether its having an annual poetry and song contest, discussing the legal ethics of a lawyer in a movie, or simply providing an engaging dialogue in class.

His style connects with students, as evinced by the fact that he has won the Lewis E. Epley Jr. Award for Excellence in Teaching three times, most recently in 2010.

“I’m a 50-year graduate of the law school, and I would have loved to have had classes under him,” says Epley, who lives in Fayetteville. “It means a whole lot to me that he has been selected by students to receive the award.”

Epley has known Brill for more than 20 years. Both are longtime members of Rotary Club of Fayetteville, an organization to which Brill has belonged since moving to Northwest Arkansas. Brill served as Rotary’s president for the 2007-08 year.

“He’s a man of faith who is committed to his family and his profession, someone who commands respect from everyone he comes in contact with,” Campbell says. “He’s very self-effacing and down to earth, but so smart and so organized. I’m always learning from him.”

Brill has taught a wide array of subjects. Some might be available at any law school in the country, while others are unique to the UA.

One such unique course is The Law and Baseball, which Brill teaches every other spring. It’s one hour a week, and each class delves into an issue that involves baseball and the law: the lifetime banishments of Pete Rose and the Black Sox; the Curt Flood case, which led to free agency; or the dispute over installing lights at Wrigley Field.

The course is for second-and third-year students. Brill says he interacts more with first-year law students, so he created the class with more advanced students — and his love of baseball — in mind.

“The law doesn’t change all that much, so he feels he’s got to change his examples,” Katherine Brill says. “He’s adapted to the whole technical side of [teaching], with the white board and computers and everything. He continues to change his teaching methods.”

Although baseball remains Howard Brill’s favorite sport, athletics in general are a major interest. He was the UA’s faculty representative to the NCAA and Southeastern Conference from 1995-2010 and has been called upon multiple times to investigate alleged NCAA rules violations in UA athletic programs.

As is the case for his students and the lawyers throughout the state who turn him for expertise, Brill proved extremely valuable in this regard, because of his integrity and his desire to find the answers.

“He gets to the heart of a matter and handles it as it should be,” Varady says. “He’s beyond reproach in that way. He sets the standards for so many people, including myself, on how to approach work with the degree of professionalism and honesty he has.”

School of Law

1045 W. Maple St.
Robert A. Leflar Law Center
Waterman Hall
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701

Phone: (479) 575-5601

Law School Directory

University of Arkansas School of Law