Howard Erlanger has always been less interested in studying how the law says people ought to behave than in understanding how people actually behave under a given set of laws.
To illustrate this difference in these two ways of looking at the legal system, the University of Wisconsin professor emeritus often cites speed limits. Everyone knows that when the speed limit is 70, it literally means it’s against the law to travel any faster. At the same time, most people are aware that they can go at least a little bit over the limit without fear of being pulled over.
This basic recognition that the law influences behavior more so than strictly determines it is what drew Erlanger to a field of study that has been variously called “law in society,” “the sociology of law” or even “life in the shadow of the law.”
When Erlanger first moved to Madison from his home state of California, it was to teach sociology rather than law. But, because of his particular interests, he found himself quickly becoming acquainted with many people in the law department.
By the time he achieved tenure as a sociology professor, he had decided a law degree would be an asset in his course of study.
“I have no idea how I did this,” he said. “I don’t think I slept.”
Erlanger obtained his juris doctorate in 1971 and began his legal teaching career with a class on trusts and estates. He has taught the course — giving it his own special sociological emphasis — ever since.
“It’s required for the bar, and it’s fundamental to the practice of law,” he said. “And in the real world, it’s a source of problems that a lot of people have. So lawyers are supposed to know something about it.”
His dedication has not gone without recognition. Among various other honors, he was voted the law school’s Classroom Teacher of the Year a record six times in a 31-year time span.
Ever since retiring from being a full-time professor, Erlanger has kept himself occupied by still teaching classes and is an academic fellow at the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and a former president of the Law & Society Association.