Professor Larry Solan, “Giant in the Field of Law and Language,” Honored in Symposium


Larry Solan

As a scholar exploring the interdisciplinary issues relating to law, language, and psychology, Larry Solan, 1901 Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus, is recognized as a pathbreaker.

On Nov. 3, Brooklyn Law School’s Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition and the Journal of Law and Policy hosted a symposium to celebrate Solan’s significant impact on and contributions to the Law School and to the field as teacher, scholar, and mentor.

The symposium brought together noted scholars and experts in linguistics and the law from around the country to present papers exploring issues of textualism in the context of Congress and the Supreme Court, corpus linguistics, forensic linguistics, and more. The papers will be published in a special “Festschrift” issue of the Journal.

“Larry is a giant in the field of law and language,” said Director of the Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition and Professor James Macleod, who organized and led the symposium. Initially intimidated by joining the illustrious Solan as a colleague at Brooklyn Law, Macleod said, he was warmly welcomed. “It’s rare for such an intellectual heavyweight to have such a down-to-earth, friendly disposition,” Macleod said. “Larry is one-of-a-kind.”

Also one-of-a-kind is the Center for the Study of Law, Language and Cognition, which Solan started in 2002, after joining the Brooklyn Law faculty in 1996. It is the only center in the nation to explore how developments in the cognitive sciences—including psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics—have dramatic implications for the law at both theoretical and practical levels. In addition to directing the Center, Solan also guided the school as Director of Graduate Education and as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs (2006-2010).

Since earning both a law degree and a Ph.D. in linguistics, Solan has devoted his career and scholarship largely to interdisciplinary issues in the areas of statutory and contractual interpretation, the attribution of liability and blame, and linguistic evidence. His publications include a raft of scholarly articles, as well as books, including The Language of Judges (1993), widely considered the seminal work on linguistic theory and legal argumentation; The Language of Statues: Laws and Their Interpretation (2010); and The Oxford Handbook of Language and Law (2012), among many others.

The symposium kicked off with a panel focusing on corpus linguistics and related tools for ascertaining linguistic meaning. Professor Jill Anderson, of the University of Connecticut School of Law, dove into artificial intelligence and large language models like ChatGPT, and also spoke of Solan’s influence on the scholarly community.

“Larry once described himself as a tour guide of sorts, through your own minds, pointing out things that he sees and understands from his training in linguistics so that we can all see and understand those things too,” Anderson said. “And Larry Solan is the best kind of tour guide there could be, because of the kind of person that he is. He is full of joy, and he takes joy in helping us see and learn. In doing this, he takes our vague collections of intuitions, and he gives us a structured sense of our own language.”

Forensic linguistics scholar and frequent Solan collaborator Professor Tammy Gales, of Hofstra University, spoke of Solan’s "generosity in integrating emerging and established scholars into the field and at his brilliance in bringing innovative new ideas to cross-disciplinary audiences," and reviewed some of the duo’s work together. This spans from one of their first collaborations, Witness Cross-Examinations in Non-Stranger Assault Crimes: An Appraisal Analysis to their most recent projects, which include a forthcoming second edition of the book Speaking of Crime, originally co-authored by Solan and the late Peter Tiersma.

Gales also shared testimonials from others who have been inspired by Solan. Among them was symposium participant and former visiting scholar at Brooklyn Law João Padua. “I was humbled by Larry’s ability to seamlessly navigate between psycholinguistics, semantics, pragmatics, criminal law, contract law, and many others,” Padua said. “He is a true professor, researcher, and academic. He is generous, funny, and humble.”

Panelist Stephen Mouritsen, litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis, discussed Solan’s “prophesy” on the use of linguistic corpora, and remarked on seeing so many familiar faces at the symposium: “The reason is in no small measure the result of the community of scholars that Larry has built in the collaboration among linguists and lawyers and law professors using the science of linguistics to tackle interpretive questions,” Mouritsen said.

The day’s second panel featured Edward Finegan, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Law at the University of Southern California School of Law, who explored the use of dictionaries and interpretation. Pragmatics and textualism was the subject of panelist Lawrence Solum, William L. Matheson and Robert M. Morgenthau Distinguished Professor of Law and Douglas D. Drysdale Research Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

“Every time I read an article or a book by Larry, I learn. And I learn deeply,” said Solum. “And I learn things that are new to me, and, in many cases, things that are new to the world of legal thought because they come from Larry. He has been a powerful force and his influence extends far beyond his own work.”

In a panel exploring textualism, Anita Krishnakumar, Agnes Williams Sesquicentennial Professor of Legislation at Georgetown Law, was joined by Abbe Gluck, Alfred M. Rankin Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Solomon Center for Health, Law and Policy at Yale Law School. Krishnakumar considered the role of grammar arguments in the modern Supreme Court’s statutory interpretation decisions, while Gluck’s talk concerned whether the Court’s “new textualists” have abandoned Congress (the subtitle of her talk: “No”).

In addition to their remarks that Solan’s scholarship had laid a foundation for the discussion of textualism that still holds true today, both spoke of how Solan had also been instrumental in helping them to forge their own careers. Krishnakumar recalled being invited as a junior scholar to a 2010 Solan-led conference at Brooklyn Law where, she said, “I met and got to know several senior scholars in the field, some of whom have since grown to be friends and some of whom are now my Georgetown colleagues.” Gluck, previously an associate at Paul, Weiss, had her first professorship at Brooklyn Law School, teaching Solan’s Legislation class when he was on leave in 2002. “I actually owe my entire career to Larry Solan,” Gluck said.

In the day’s final panel, Brian Slocum, Stearns Weaver Miller Professor at the Florida State University College of Law, and Professor Kevin Tobia, of Georgetown Law, discussed the linguistic concepts of “ordinary meaning,” and “term-of-art meaning,” both as they were applied in the 19th-century landmark Supreme Court case Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892) and in modern textualist applications. A Solan and Gales article, Revisiting a Classic Problem in Statutory Interpretation: Is a Minister a Laborer?, 36 Georgia State University Law Review 491 (2020), said Tobia, is “an example of law and language as discovery. Larry and Tammy took an old case where it was thought there was not much else to say and actually discovered, with tools of corpus linguistics, something new, fascinating, and exciting, breathing new life into this case.”

William Eskridge, Jr., Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Law at Yale Law School, elaborated on the Holy Trinity case, and spoke of being inspired in his own work by a Larry Solan presentation in which Solan expanded on “the famous linguistics principle that a lot of phrases are more than or less than the sum of the prototypical meanings of the words in the phrase.” Of the Gales and Solan paper on the Holy Trinity case, Eskridge said, “I think it is the most successful corpus linguistics paper ever written, and maybe ever will be written.”