Shining a Light

Professor Dave Hoffman is the first to admit that his approach to legal scholarship is somewhat different. Where most law professors work to clarify and reform doctrine, Hoffman chooses instead to look at how legal rules shape ordinary individuals’ actions – and how such conduct in turn influences the law. It’s called empirical legal studies, and Hoffman is using it to do some fascinating things.

Perhaps it’s his training in archaeology that set Professor Hoffman on this path. He majored in archaeology because he “wanted to excavate new stuff in the world, to establish new facts.” But after experiencing the mud and mosquitoes of a dig in the Guatemalan jungle, Hoffman concluded that his search could be equally productive in a more civilized setting. For a variety of reasons, law was a natural choice. “I had always seen law as an intellectually exciting approach to life, a chance to use my brain and help society at the same time. We had a lot of lawyers in the family, and they were not only interesting to talk to, they were engrossed by their jobs. I wanted to be jazzed about my work even after decades spent doing it,” Hoffman explains.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Hoffman completed a clerkship with Judge Norma Shapiro of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He then spent two years as a litigation associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, before joining the Temple Law faculty in 2004. He chose Temple in part because the school is “a Philadelphia institution, not just a school that happens to be in Philadelphia,” but more importantly because “Temple Law knows what it’s about and it stands apart. At Temple, we make access to legal education and training prepared lawyers our top priorities. I want to be a part of that.”

Here at Temple, Hoffman teaches Contracts, Corporations, Civil Procedure, Law and Economics, and Law and Human Behavior. As a popular but demanding professor, Hoffman allows his scholarly and classroom agendas to inform one another as he pushes his students to develop legal judgment. “The bar exam is merely a licensing test. It doesn’t warrant that you will be a successful lawyer,” Hoffman notes. “To prosper in law you must be able to evaluate arguments and assess legal risk. This is what I try to teach my students to do.”

How we as people assess risk is a major focus of Hoffman’s scholarly work. Through his affiliation with the Cultural Cognition Project, Hoffman has been exploring how individuals interpret information and form judgments about risk based on their cultural values. He’s written about, among other things, how diametrically opposite conclusions can both be “reasonable” when understood in the context of individuals’ cultural perspectives. This insight has significant implications for policy makers in any number of culturally sensitive areas, including tort and contract law.

Hoffman is also interested in the moral psychology of how ordinary people use contracts to build trust in their professional relationships. In a 2010 article Breach is for Suckers, Hoffman and a co-author noted that many people will avoid breaching a contract even when they are likely to profit more from breaching it than honoring it. Conversely, individuals who suffer breach feel like suckers – embarrassed, angry, and distrustful in their future dealings. This finding, based on experimental research, sheds light on the ways in which the legal theory model of participants in legal exchange may be psychologically naive.

And then there are, as Hoffman puts it, his “counting projects.” One of the more unusual features of Professor Hoffman’s legal scholarship is his emphasis on quantitative research – counting things and drawing conclusions from the data. Lately, he has been counting dockets – ledgers in which the court records each event in a given litigation. While he’s gathering the information for a research project into litigation about piercing the corporate veil, he recognizes that it also has implications for how law students learn about legal practice in action. “Most legal casebooks contain heavily edited passages from judicial opinions, which themselves are often the last and most considered element of the litigation,” Hoffman explains. “A contracts book will only include the passages about the contract issue, and the torts book will only include the tort claims. But in real life, the same case involves both of these issues, so students need to learn how to work with multiple claims at the same time. Looking at dockets may help us figure out how to teach that better.”

In a very practical way, this “real life” perspective is what lies at the heart of Professor Hoffman’s work. “I’m interested in illuminating our world to reveal and then reform the false assumptions that the law often makes about human behavior.” In many ways, the former archaeologist is still focused on establishing new facts and digging up new things to know about the world. As a result, if Hoffman has his way, we will all be able to know a bit more about the complex relationship between law and life.