This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.
Close Up

A philosophical approach to the law

  • “One thing that law schools should do for students, whatever their skill set, is to push them a little bit.”

    Matthew Steilen
    Associate Professor of Law
Published: September 8, 2011

“Philosophy is thinking in slow motion.”

The formula may not have originated with Matthew Steilen’s PhD adviser, but it has rung true for Steilen through his study of philosophy—and on through Stanford Law School and a legal career.

Steilen, who joined the UB Law faculty this fall as an associate professor, has done some thinking in his time. A Minnesota native, he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, cum laude, at that state’s Carleton College, then went on to a doctoral program in philosophy at Northwestern University. Following law school and a federal appellate clerkship, he worked in litigation at the San Francisco law firm Covington & Burling.

Steilen, who’s also affiliated with the Department of Philosophy at UB, says he’s found himself drawn to philosophy because it indulges his love of intellectual puzzles.

“Sometimes you believe you understand something about the world,” he says, “and when you slow down and examine why it is you’ve come to the conclusion you’ve come to, everything starts to fall apart. For people who enjoy intellectual inquiry and the life of the mind, that feeling of exploring something you thought you understood so well is really enjoyable.”

Steilen says that when he was ready to make the leap from practice into legal teaching, he was drawn to UB Law’s reputation as a place that values interdisciplinary scholarship. It was evident, he says, when he delivered a candidate paper that was “more philosophical than it was typical legal scholarship. The people who were there ate it up. The level of engagement with the substance of my talk and with my broader set of interests was phenomenal. It’s going to be a great place to start my career as a teacher.”

Or continue it, actually. Steilen was an active teaching assistant at Northwestern and worked to train other TAs in classroom techniques.

“I really enjoy teaching,” says Steilen, whose initial courses will be in constitutional law and civil procedure. “It’s very different from practice. When you’re providing a service to a paying client, you have to move quickly. There’s not time to recreate the foundations of the law from the ground up. In teaching, I know where I want to go and I figure out a series of steps, and I can draw out of students their views on certain aspects of the subject and keep them moving in the direction I want them to move.”

Not that it’s always comfortable, he acknowledges. “One thing that law schools should do for students, whatever their skill set, is to push them a little bit,” Steilen says. “If you’re not working on developing the suite of skills you come with, law school is doing you a disservice.”

His legal experience bears that out. As law clerk to Hon. Kermit V. Lipez of the U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, in Portland, Maine, he learned a lot by “seeing the judge wrestle through how to resolve a case and really do his best to treat the parties fairly and spend significant time understanding the factual basis of the case and the law.”

At Covington & Burling, Steilen worked on two large cases: helping to represent BP in its effort to obtain insurance coverage for losses arising out of the Deepwater Horizon accident, and representing plaintiffs pro bono in a case alleging racial discrimination by Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joseph Arpaio.

Steilen and his wife, Kate Hasler Steilen, a fiction writer, have a 14-month-old daughter, Willa. He says they’re looking forward to doing some hiking in the area and, because they are avid skiers, glad to be back in four-season territory.