Professor Leibson Shares Parting Thoughts About His Time at the Law School, Retirement

Professor David J. Leibson wanted to pursue a teaching career from a young age. But even he could not have envisioned what was to follow and what he would accomplish during a 40-plus-year distinguished tenure at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law—the law school from which he graduated first in his class in 1969. 

“If someone would’ve told me in law school that I would end up being a so-called expert on the Uniform Commercial Code, I would’ve told them that they were crazy,” Leibson said. “That’s why I tell my students to never rule out anything as an opportunity.”

After Leibson was encouraged to become a teacher by his mentor and professor Bob Birkby while an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, Leibson’s opportunity to finally enter academia arrived in 1971. Former Dean of UofL’s law school James Merritt unexpectedly called Leibson, then an associate handling mostly personal injury cases at Leibson & Franklin, PSC, to become a part-time professor; however, rather than teaching a subject for which he already had a strong interest, like Torts or Evidence, he would be teaching a Secured Transactions class.

As it turned out, Leibson enjoyed teaching the class and eventually parlayed his part-time position into a full-time teaching position for the 1972–73 academic year. Within ten years, Leibson, previously unmoved by the wonders of the UCC, was approached by a publisher to author what would later become the first edition of The Uniform Commercial Code of Kentucky. The project was too massive for one person to handle so he recruited a rookie law professor at the time, Richard Nowka—the current Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs Professor of Law—to help pen the work.
 
“We wrote that book more than 30 years ago and that’s way too long for my recollection of highlights,” said Nowka, one of Leibson’s friends and colleagues on the faculty. “But I do recall how grateful I was that he asked me, a first-year teacher, to be a co-author with him on a book.” 

The book was well-received by the bench, bar, and Leibson’s students, who represent the part of his job that Leibson will miss the most.

“I will definitely miss the intellectual challenge of the classroom because I know our students here are as intelligent and creative as anywhere else.” said Leibson, whose oft-quoted saying “What would your mother say?” reminded his students and challenged them to focus not only on the subtleties of precise statutory language, but also to look at the common sense behind Code provisions.

Leibson’s dedication to his students prompted, in part, his decision to retire. He did not want to transform, as he witnessed with some of his peers, into a shell of his former self, unable to muster the same level of passion and enthusiasm that he expects to bring to the classroom. 

Aside from the Code classes he teaches, Leibson, an avid reader, is extremely passionate and enthusiastic about his Law & Literature Seminar, which he said would now be the one class that could sway him into getting that itch to return from retirement.
 
Third-year law student Michael Atkinson, enrolled in Leibson’s Negotiable Instruments and Law & Literature classes this semester, spoke particularly highly of the seminar: “There was one class where [Professor Leibson] made a suggestion based on one of our readings, and I disagreed with the merits of his suggestion, but he didn't shoot me down; rather, he respected my opinion and contributions to the discussion. The class, and the way he conducted it, was truly a model for civil discourse.”

Leibson said that his teaching methodology is driven by the way students are responding in the class and that he learned, over time, not to judge students too quickly, as each person thrives and learns differently depending on the circumstances. Despite the progressive integration of technology and distance learning in higher education, Leibson prefers face-to-face discussions with his students—whether to assist in understanding the material or simply getting to find out a little bit more about who they are. 

Now, one topic of discussion is what Leibson will do in his retirement. Expecting to be unable to decide exactly what to do for at least the first six months, Leibson and his wife, Phyllis, will likely devote some time to their love of traveling; with Leibson having previously served as a visiting Professor of Law at the University of Western Sydney, Australia is one of the couple’s favorite destinations.

Restoring his (once-impressive) handicap on the links to respectability and finally being able to delve into the stack of books by his bed are also on the to-do list for the professor when he leaves his post at the law school after finals (and his celebratory roast and retirement party!) are over.  

For as much knowledge as Leibson has imparted upon his pupils throughout the years, he maintains that they returned the favor on a daily basis.

“After all this time, you learn a lot about life and your work, not only because of yourself, but from the students themselves,” Leibson said.