Presser paces his classroom, stalking the curious,
the inquisitive, the rapt.
students in the Kellogg School's Executive
MBA Program sit attentively, watching Presser's every
move. He gestures smartly as his dramatic voice fills the
Presser is setting a scene:
A man has suffered a heart attack after returning home to
find his house in flames. The man wants to sue the company
that manufactured a hair dryer that ignited.
"He's not dead, but
he's a shell of his former self," Presser declares,
pausing for effect. "Can he recover? Will
he win?" Suddenly
he points to a student in the third row. "David, what
do you think?"
Anyone who happens to be
in the classroom is fair game. "You're an outside observer,"
he's been known to ask surprised visitors. "What's your
point of view?"
Presser isn't so much in
pursuit of students' hides as he is of their ideas. He wants
their opinions, even if he disagrees. The Raoul Berger Professor
of Legal History is not afraid to take a controversial stance.
Presser has testified on
Capitol Hill in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban
flag burning, advocated for the impeachment of former President
Bill Clinton and has been a vocal supporter of U.S. Supreme
Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
He is a prolific author of
books and articles about constitutional law and legal history.
He has appeared frequently on television to discuss legal
and political issues, and his op-eds and book reviews are
published regularly in newspapers and magazines.
is also a top-rated teacher at Kellogg and the Northwestern
University School of Law, an expert on shareholder liability
for corporate debts and a frequent witness before U.S. Senate
and House committees on matters of constitutional law.
So it shouldn't be surprising
that a class taught by Stephen Presser is engaging and full
of healthy debate. "One of the thrills of teaching classes
in business law is that everyone expects them to be hideously
boring," says Presser, who first aspired to an acting
career before deciding to attend law school.
"If you can address
the ideological questions that are involved, it becomes much
more exciting. When you're exploring legal and economic issues,
you're talking philosophy and ethics and deep human questions.
The law is a seamless web."
At Kellogg, Presser also
teaches business law in the full- and part-time programs.
His course Law and the Manager is required in the executive
MBA curriculum. He also teaches legal and constitutional history
at Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, while
at the law school he teaches American legal history and jurisprudence.
"I still use the Socratic
method," Presser says. "I teach all my students
the way I was taught 35 years ago. They're all scared out
of their wits when I start. But I think that by the end of
the term, they understand that I'm not trying to inflict any
permanent tissue damage," he adds with a laugh.
Far from it. Presser's former
Kellogg students describe his classes as "totally stimulating,"
"incredibly interactive" and even "an experience
that made me wish I'd gone to law school." He has won
numerous teaching awards, including the Executive MBA Program's
top professor nine times.
"He is an enormously
talented teacher," says former student Sean Carmody
'05, an investment banker at JPMorgan in New York. "He
can take something that appears to be really dry and make
it part of a broader story that's very interesting. He can
take characters that seem to have just two dimensions and
make it clear that they are three-dimensional. He has outstanding
stage presence, and he's also funny — hysterically funny."
That all serves Presser's
greater goal: to help managers and lawyers understand each
"One of the qualities
of a good manager is to know how to work with lawyers,"
Presser says. "There's a need for every manager to appreciate
legal analysis. The standard business law program tries to
teach managers a smattering of legal doctrines — torts,
that sort of thing. I'm not interested in that. I want to
teach them to think like lawyers, so that they can better
comprehend the advice their lawyers are giving."
At the law school, he is
just as engaged in helping law students think through issues
from a manager's perspective. "Lawyers often don't understand
business," he remarks. "Marketing, finance and teamwork
— these are things that you learn instinctively as a
manager and in business school, but that sometimes lawyers
As a result,
"the lawyers don't trust the managers, the managers
don't know how to talk to lawyers, and it leads to some very
interesting interactions," he says. "What you have
is several groups of dogs, circling around and sniffing at
And when these lawyers who
don't understand business become lawmakers, they make laws
that can undermine the U.S. economy, Presser says.
As an example, he cites the
Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which Congress passed in 2002 in response
to corporate accounting scandals. "It generates too much
information and it doesn't eliminate bad practices,"
Presser says. "All
it does is make accountants richer. There were ways to correct
the problems of Andersen and WorldCom and Enron without over-regulating
Such intervention is something
Presser believes has larger implications.
"The U.S. is the envy
of the world because we are so incredibly productive and innovative
and a big reason for that is the country's great business
leadership," he says. "Instead of respecting that,
our lawmakers react to excesses with things like Sarbanes-Oxley.
We shouldn't kill the goose that lays the golden egg."
In his writings and Congressional
testimony, Presser espouses a deep respect for natural law
and defends a strong role for courts in striking down government
action. While vocal on behalf of those ideas outside the classroom,
Presser says he doesn't let politics intrude on his teaching.
"When you're interpreting
the Constitution, it matters whether you're a conservative
or a liberal, but when you're talking about insider trading
and federal securities laws, it recedes into the background,"
But what's irrepressible
is Presser's passion for making business law come to life,
especially at Kellogg, a place where he feels at home. "I
love Kellogg," Presser says. "It's a complete joy
to be able to move back and forth between Kellogg and the
law school and break down the stereotypical walls that divide
lawyers and managers."