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ABF Scholars Awarded Major Prizes at Law & Society Association

June 4, 2008, Press releases

CHICAGO –June 4- John L. Comaroff and Elizabeth Mertz, American Bar Foundation Research Professors, are recipients of two major prizes awarded by the Law and Society Association. The 2008 Harry J. Kalven, Jr., Prize, awarded to John Comaroff and the 2008 Herbert Jacob Book Award, presented to Elizabeth Mertz for her 2007 book, The Language of Law School: Learning to “Think Like a Lawyer,” were announced at the Law & Society Association Annual Meeting in Montreal in May.

The Kalven Prize, awarded jointly to Comaroff and his wife and collaborator, Jean Comaroff, recognizes their contributions to the empirical study of law and society through their on-going projects – spanning more than thirty years – in South Africa and the global south.  Jean and John Comaroff are leading figures in cultural anthropology, renowned especially for their work on the relationship between law, consciousness, and contemporary politics. Their ethnographic analyses of the emergence of rights consciousness in colonial and postcolonial South Africa have influenced many scholars.  John Comaroff holds a joint appointment at the American Bar Foundation and the University of Chicago. The Comaroffs’ seminal work includes Of Revelation and Revolution (U Chicago Press, 1991) and Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. (Westview Press. 1992).

The Herbert Jacob Book Award, presented to Elizabeth Mertz, is given to the most outstanding Law and Society book published in 2007. Mertz, a legal anthropologist who studies legal language in the United States, specializes in law school education. Her prize-winning work, The Language of Law School: Learning to “Think Like a Lawyer,” provides the most detailed observational data ever obtained on U.S. law teaching.  Mertz based her empirical study on tape recordings from first year Contracts courses in eight different law schools. Her findings uncover a similar underlying message that was encoded in the deeper linguistic structure of the classes she studied, regardless of the law professors’ surface teaching style, which varied. She found that as students are taught to “think like lawyers,” they are pulled into a closed linguistic system that affords them critical new skills, but can also shut students’ minds to other ways of understanding the world, thus raising fundamental questions about how legal education affects our system of justice.

Additionally, Mertz’s ABF research is the lone study to date that provides systematic observational data on race and gender dynamics in law school classrooms.   Her book provides an empirical foundation for efforts to provide equal opportunity in legal education.  Elizabeth Mertz holds a joint appointment at the American Bar Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Law School.

“We take special pride in the work of John Comaroff and Elizabeth Mertz,” said ABF Director, Robert L. Nelson.  “The Law and Society Association is the leading academic association for the empirical study of law.  To win two major prizes in one year is a wonderful recognition of the significance of the ABF research program.”    

The American Bar Foundation is the nation’s leading research institute for the empirical study of law.  An independent, nonprofit organization, for more than fifty years the ABF has advanced the understanding and improvement of law through research projects of unmatched scale and quality on the most pressing issues facing the legal system in the United States and the world.


Lucinda Underwood
The American Bar Foundation
312.988.6573 (v)
312.988.6579 (f)



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