In Memoriam: David Westfall

By Kagan, Elena; Mansfield, John H. et al. | Harvard Law Review, February 2006 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: David Westfall

Kagan, Elena, Mansfield, John H., Miller, Arthur R., Murray, Peter L., Vagts, Detlev F., Harvard Law Review

The editors of the Harvard Law Review respectfully dedicate this issue to Professor David Westfall.

Elena Kagan

During the five decades David Westfall taught at Harvard Law School, he was many things to many people: a committed scholar, a generous colleague, a devoted friend. But when I think of David what strikes me most is his total dedication to students.

David truly valued and enjoyed students, something I experienced firsthand when he taught me labor law some twenty years ago. Unfailingly gracious and deeply knowledgeable, he brought clarity and dry wit to complex legal issues. He was sometimes caustic but never unkind--intent on creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and inquiry. He was profoundly committed to the Law School and its students, as reflected in his choice to teach up through the last months of his life. His identity was that of a law teacher, and he stayed one until the end.

One of the most remarkable things about David is how he seemed to grow younger with age. When the Law School created the new role of section leader and recruited faculty members who would set the tone of welcome and personal interest for eighty students in each year's entering class, David enthusiastically volunteered. During the last years of his life, he enjoyed terrific popularity in this role, easing students' introduction to the rigors of law school life. At a time when many of us would be contemplating retirement, David was a fixture at his section's social events--and he not only showed up, he had fun. He went well beyond the call of duty in his efforts to connect with students, hosting several smaller orientation dinners at his home (as opposed to the usual one large party on campus) and inviting students stuck in Cambridge over Thanksgiving to join him for the holiday meal. I'm told that his many evening soirees sometimes lasted well into the night. After his death, a number of students gathered money for a gift in his name and proposed that Section Six be named in perpetuity the David Westfall Section, a testament to the high regard in which they still hold their former teacher.

The first year of law school can be intimidating, but David's warmth and down-to-earth attitude always put students at ease. So charmed were students by his deadpan wit that one of his sections compiled a book featuring David's off-the-cuff remarks in their first-year property class, such as this response to a student he'd called on who explained that he'd just been scratching his head: "Well, I expect that has prepared you to make your point." And this reply to a student who opined that a city's land development people weren't stupid: "Do you have direct evidence of that?" The light touch shown by such comments was at the heart of David's teaching. He gave law--and law school--a human face, and his students are the richer for it.

In his half century at the Law School, David not only saw enormous change but also embraced--indeed sought out--change in his own life and career. After almost twenty years of teaching, having already established himself as a leading professor of trusts and estates, David took off in entirely new directions, developing expertise in the fields of family law and labor law. I have the greatest admiration for his decision to pursue this path. It demonstrates the curiosity and sense of adventure that he brought to so many things.

Recalling her apprehensive first days at the Law School, one of David's students observed that "he helped us to take this place with a grain of salt and a smile." In fact, he did that for all of us. David Westfall was a wonderful teacher and a wonderful colleague whose contributions to Harvard Law School were many and enduring. He is--and will be--deeply missed.

John H. Mansfield

I was a student in David Westfall's first class at the Harvard Law School, fifty years ago. Property II, it was called. It was a very large class, almost two hundred I believe, held in Austin North. …

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