Building Community by Making Community


Randy Kozel enjoyed the fast-paced world of corporate America, in which he acted as special counsel to the general counsel for General Electric. But after nearly two years of judicial clerkships, two years in private practice and another three years with the multinational conglomerate, he decided he wanted to make a different kind of impact on the world by educating future attorneys and researching the subjects of legal precedent and free speech.

“I always had the thought that teaching was where I ultimately wanted to be,” said Kozel, an associate professor of law at Notre Dame Law School. “I thought it was where I belonged or maybe even what I was called to do.”

Kozel first began to think more critically about his long-term career goals while clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

“While clerking I had the opportunity to have lunch with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas,” he said. “I asked him at the time, what am I supposed to do with my life? And he said to me, ‘that’s easy. What are you called to do?’ And then he told me, when that call comes, I should listen.”

That calling came through loud and clear for Kozel nearly six years later when he heard about an open faculty position at Notre Dame Law School. With some friends on the faculty but no formal connection to the University, the Harvard-educated lawyer explained that he and his wife Abi were drawn to the campus’s strong sense of tradition, character and community. The decision to send over his resume and later interview for the position was a no-brainer.

“We thought Notre Dame was a really special place with a unique spirit to it,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable combination of an excellent school and rigorous curriculum, combined with extraordinary graciousness and generosity. It felt like God had a plan for us and this is where it took us.”

Kozel has been teaching at the Law School since 2011. Since then, he’s been selected Distinguished Professor of the Year (by the Class of 2014) and acted as faculty advisor for the NDLS student Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. He teaches contracts, freedom of speech and a seminar on legal change.

The sense of community that originally drew Kozel to Notre Dame is now a significant part of what drives his teaching philosophy. In an effort to connect and build meaningful relationships with students, Kozel schedules time to talk with first-year law students in his contracts class outside of the classroom, informally and over coffee.

“It’s great for me to know these students and to learn where they’ve come from,” he said. “They’ve had so many great experiences already and they’ve got so much perspective.

“I believe you become a part of a community by making a community. When we take these connections in the classroom and bring them outside of the classroom it enriches everything, and that leads to a stronger school and more meaningful relationships. It makes the experience richer for students and faculty as well.”

Sam Leist, 1L, had Kozel for contracts his first semester. Leist said Kozel made it clear he was there to support students.

“When you prepare to begin law school as a 1L, everyone you talk to and everything you read leads you to believe that it’s going to be a degrading, demoralizing experience,” Leist said. “My first semester at Notre Dame, though certainly strenuous, was nothing like that at all, mostly due to professors like Randy Kozel.

“In addition to his incredible clarity in the classroom and his easygoing nature, both of which helped to settle us timid first-years, his general air of relaxed competence made him incredibly easy to approach. I am very grateful to have taken a class with Professor Kozel, especially during my stressful first semester of law school, and I know I’m not the only one.”

Kozel earned a bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His recent scholarship exploring the connection between judicial precedent and interpretive philosophy has been published or is forthcoming in the California Law Review, the Michigan Law Review, the Texas Law Review, and the Vanderbilt Law Review. His forthcoming book, Settled Versus Right: A Theory of Precedent, is under contract with Cambridge University Press.

Kozel has not only managed to impress students but he has also made an impact on his colleagues.

“Working with Randy is great,” said Jeffrey Pojanowski, professor of law at Notre Dame and Robert and Marion Short Scholar. Kozel and Pojanowski have worked closely together and recently co-authored an article focusing on the Supreme Court’s workload and method for selecting cases, Discretionary Dockets.

“He’s an amazing catalyst for great writing,” said Pojanowski. “He’s consistent and methodical but also really thoughtful. He’s great with seeing the bigger picture but also pays close attention to detail.”

When he isn’t spending time with his wife and two small daughters, running marathons, or focusing on his own research, Kozel is passionately teaching, molding and shaping his students.

“I emphasize the importance of what we are studying and how exciting it is to be a lawyer,” he said. “I focus on how rewarding it is to be a part of this profession, which gives you the ability to engage in issues that are not just intellectually interesting but that matter immensely in every walk of life you can image.

“I try to emphasize the fact that these cases and these rules that we study are really stories about people; people trying to achieve things, people trying to work together, dealing with problems. I think if you understand their stories, it helps you understand the law more deeply.”

Written by Lauren Love