Signing (off) on the dotted line

April 10, 2022
Sidney DeLong at graduation
Professor Sidney DeLong addresses the graduates at the 2018 Commencement Ceremony. Photo by Marcus Donner

Professor Sidney DeLong retires after 37 years of teaching

Imagine a world without laws, without lawyers. An apple tree sits near the border between two neighboring yards. If an apple falls off the tree and rolls into the other yard, who owns that apple? If a free-range chicken wanders into the neighbor’s yard and lays eggs, who owns the eggs?

If that thought exercise sounds familiar, you likely heard if from Professor Sidney DeLong, a longtime Seattle University School of Law professor who teaches contracts, jurisprudence, and other popular classes. DeLong retires this year after 37 years with the law school.

The apple tree scenario is just one example of how DeLong, over the last four decades, has used direct, plain-spoken, and engaging teaching methods to help countless law students learn to think like lawyers.

“I keep the classroom atmosphere light. I try to share my enthusiasm for my subject with my students, I try to be clear when explaining the law, and I am always looking at their reactions and listening to what they have to say,” he said.

Laura Anglin ’99, adjunct professor and law clerk to Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez, said she thinks of DeLong’s anecdote often when she traces legal doctrines back to the cases in which they were established.

“It was really powerful,” she said. “The questions got more difficult and the answers the groups of students came up with were more and more different. How does a society apply the same rules and/or standards to everyone?”

DeLong turned to teaching in 1985 after more than a decade of practicing complex civil litigation with a firm in Denver, Colorado. As an attorney, he found that he especially enjoyed helping new associates learn the ropes, which inspired the career change. Responding to an ad, he took a job with University of Puget Sound School of Law as a legal writing teacher. (The law school was acquired by Seattle University in 1994.)

After three years, he began teaching doctrinal subjects like contracts, which remains his favorite subject to teach.

“It’s a first-year course, which is when a professor has the greatest effect on students. The switch in the way you think about the law happens in that first year – the first semester, really,” he said. “Ninety percent of the transition into thinking like a lawyer happens in the first year. And that’s also when enthusiasm is the highest.”

In his career as a professor, he earned eight awards for outstanding teaching.

As a scholar, he’s written on issues such as contract law, economics, blackmail, and restitution in various publications, including University of Wisconsin Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, University of Kansas Law Review, South Carolina Law Review and others.

He’s also dabbled in legal humor in a handful of articles, notably riffing on Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” recently with a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Contract.” (“The question is / What is a blackbird?”) His favorite was a piece titled “Jacques of All Trades: Derrida, Lacan, and the Commercial Lawyer,” absurdly applying modern literary theory to commercial law.

DeLong earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Vanderbilt University in 1969 and his JD from Yale Law School in 1974, although two years of military service interrupted his legal education. He credits his time in the U.S. Army, as well as the three years he spent teaching legal writing, for his inclusive and direct approach to teaching.

“The purpose of basic training is that everybody’s got to qualify. Everybody’s got to get through. There are no A plusses in basic training,” he said. “I felt that law classes should have that same direction, to make sure everybody’s getting it.”

Share this