An Interview with Professor R. Alta Charo

Q. What are you working on now?
I’m working on two things for the fall. One, I’m looking into changes in approval rules that could improve the speed and quality of drug development — and two, I’m rethinking the current administrative laws and regulations that govern emerging technologies. The current statutory and regulatory regimes make sense on their face, but when applied have inefficient and undesirable consequences. We need our legal structures to anticipate the kind of rapid change and intrinsic uncertainties that are part of emerging technologies. That means we have to look at all the components—liability, the organization of businesses, antitrust law, you name it.

How does the Law School’s Law in Action emphasis distinguish it from other places?
Other schools take a more traditional view of scholarship, emphasizing ‘law for the sake of law’—but here, scholarship and service fall under a much broader umbrella. Whether I’m serving on an advisory board or drafting policy or working on other outside activities, my service translates into what I write and what I teach. Wisconsin was way ahead of other universities in its porousness between schools and colleges and departments. It’s easy here to teach in more than one place and to collaborate with other researchers and programs. That flexibility has given me the freedom to think very creatively about the ways law can help support societal goals.

How does your work connect law, science and policy?
I do view myself as a bridge between lawyers and scientists. The level of science literacy, for policy makers and the general public, has not kept up with developments in science. But science has to be translated into policy choices—whether and how to fund technologies, whether and how to regulate them, how to test them. At the same time, I can work with scientists to examine the constraints imposed by rules and regulations, and also explore ways to work creatively within those constraints.

Why do you teach?
There is intrinsic value in continuing to teach. Teaching requires you to go back to the basics of your training, beliefs and assumptions and to keep mining them for insights. Teaching keeps you fresh.

Do you have any advice for an incoming 1L?

Here is what I always tell my first-year torts students. When students get their textbooks—which are case driven, with a typical format that begins with a section on procedure and a section on facts, followed by the appellate court's reasoning and decision—I tell them to read the procedure and the facts, and then close their books. Students should ask themselves, “How should this be resolved? What is the moral center of the argument?” In other words, be the judge.  Reaching decisions on your own promotes active learning, and makes for more creative and thoughtful lawyers. I tell students, when they’re out practicing law, people want to hire attorneys who offer solutions, not opinions.

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