Law for Law’s Sake
”Studying law is like peeling an onion,” said Paul A. Diller. “You just keep peeling and peeling until you find a solution.” Diller, an assistant professor of law at Willamette University College of Law, said the elusive nature of law is what drew him to teaching. “As a student of law, you must be comfortable with ambiguity, because often there is no black letter law to rely on. I want to help students understand that in many legal cases there are no right answers. You just have to mold out of them a coherent legal answer for your client.”
Diller’s interest in constructing solutions from amorphous subject matter led him to the study of economics and applied science with a concentration in public policy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “Economics involves the study of incentives that affect human behavior,” he explained, “which provides a useful way to examine the world.” He soon determined that, as a broad social science, economics is limited in the answers it can provide. “Economics is more than just quantitative,” he explained, “so you need to rely on something else to make the more normative judgments at its foundation. In this way, the study of economics is much like the study of law.”
After earning his undergraduate degree, Diller accepted a position in the macroeconomics division of the Congressional Budget Office in Washington. He spent close to a year researching major policy issues, from consumer credit and national savings rates to trends in employment and foreign trade. Although the job fulfilled his lifelong dream of working on public policy issues in Washington, the experience also showed him a more pragmatic side of economics not gained in his academic studies. “I soon realized how economics can be manipulated to produce the political results you want,” he said.
Diller’s interest in public policy, however, was not diminished. He soon enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, where he served as articles editor for the Michigan Law Review. He also was named a Clarence Darrow Scholar and a winner of the Henry M. Campbell Moot Court Competition. After graduation, Diller accepted a judicial clerkship with Chief Judge Edward R. Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. “It provided me with a rare opportunity to see the judicial system from the inside,” he said. “I was part of the decision-making process; not a lot of lawyers get to participate in those activities at the federal level.”
When his clerkship ended, Diller returned to Washington and accepted a job with the U.S. Department of Justice in the federal programs branch of the civil division. As a trial attorney for the DOJ, he represented federal agencies and officials in cases involving constitutional, administrative and international law. “The DOJ gave me more autonomy than corporate legal work might have,” he said. “It allowed me to stay oriented in public interest while handling my own cases. It allowed me to make important strategic decisions on cases early in my career.”
According to Diller, working at the DOJ allowed him to engage in both theoretical and prosaic matters of law. “I was able to take an intellectual approach in my work on cases involving the constitutionality of federal statutes and regulations, like the constitutionality of copyright laws protecting foreign authors,” he explained. “But I also was able to do more fact-based legal work, which was less philosophical because it involved more traditional lawyering – like depositions and discovery.” Diller added, however, that he did not always personally agree with some of the issues the office handled. “At the end of the day, you’re doing the administration’s bidding,” he said.
Motivated by a desire to address legal issues he truly believes in and to pursue “law for law’s sake,” Diller left Washington for the world of academics. “Working in academics allows you to argue for the side you think is right,” he explained. “And it gives you the freedom to pursue views you want to advance within the legal community.” He joined the College of Law faculty in the summer of 2005.
Diller, who teaches Property and State and Local Government Law, appreciates the opportunity to engage his students in philosophical discussions of legal issues. “I want to help students understand that where there is no black letter law, there are infinite shades of gray to examine.”