Maynard Pirsig

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Minnesota Supreme Court photo, 1942.

Maynard E. Pirsig LLD (January 9, 1902 – February 6, 1997) was an American legal scholar and academic.[1]

He was a University of Minnesota Law School professor, from 1933 to 1970, also serving as the department's dean from 1948 to 1955. Pirsig also served as professor at the William Mitchell College of Law from 1970 to 1993. He had one of the longest careers of any legal academic.[2]

According to Minnesota Associate Supreme Court Justice, Lawrence Yetka, "Maynard had his hand in every significant improvement in the legal and judicial system in Minnesota for 60 years."

Teaching career[edit]

Pirsig's pathbreaking casebook on Judicial Administration gave birth to a new subject in the field of law.[3] With regards to his Judicial Administration course, "The hope, one would gather, was that students thus equipped with a challenging attitude, a reformer's zeal for ideal solutions, and a full arsenal of possibilities for innovations would continue to confront the judicial system with challenges to ever more humane conduct that alone will guarantee it's continuing legitimacy."[4]

An example of Maynard's writing on professional ethics, "The lawyer's duty is of a double character.  He owes to his client the duty of fidelity, but he also owes the duty of good faith and honorable dealing to judicial tribunals before whom he practices his profession.  He is an officer of the court, --a minister in the temple of justice. "  Cases and Materials on Legal Ethics, 1949, Pirsig.

University of Minnesota Law School 1933-1970[edit]

In 1934, Pirsig originated the Judicial Administration course at the University of Minnesota's law school, which he taught throughout his career. It was meant to be "A course that strove to encompass all subjects - from justice and precedence, to trial techniques and the organization of the courts - pertinent to developing well rounded lawyers".[5] He also taught courses on pleading, ethics and criminal law. Pirsig also introduced the first course on personnel training in correctional institutions, at the university.[2]

Pirsig received the University of Minnesota's Outstanding Achievement Award in 1985.[6] He retired from the U of M at 68, the school's mandatory retirement age at the time.[7] The main Law School Building houses a lecture hall named in honor of Pirsig, and also houses a large portrait painting of him. The U of M Law School named their moot court, The Maynard Pirsig Moot Court: click here

In Pirsig's final will was a substantial monetary gift to "The U" to encourage restoring Judicial Administration back to their curriculum, which they did.

William Mitchell College of Law 1970-1993[edit]

William Mitchell Law School had no mandatory retirement age, and immediately hired Pirsig after his retirement from Minnesota for their next semester - on Pirsig's condition that he not be tenured, in case he became incompetent to teach due to age, after which they could release him from his position. This did not happen until 23 years later, when he turned 91. At William Mitchell he taught courses in criminal law, criminal procedure, professional responsibility, and comparative judicial administration. He received an honorary doctorate from William Mitchell in 1981.

Pirsig made a substantial donation for the construction of the Warren E. Burger Law Library.[8] The Law Library now houses a hall named after him, which houses a collection of his legal and personal memorabilia, including one of his U of M lectures which was recorded onto a vinyl LP.

Minnesota Supreme Court[edit]

In 1942, at the age of 40, Pirsig served briefly as an interim justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court appointed by Governor Harold Stassen. He served for only a few months, but wrote more than a dozen opinions, several of which later became important legal precedents.[2] Pirsig felt he could be more influential as a professor, and returned to teaching, soon becoming U of M Law' s Dean.

A summary of opinions written by Maynard E. Pirsig can be seen at this link: click here.

Judicial Committees and Legal Aid Society[edit]

Pirsign also served as executive director of the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Society, from 1926 to 1931. He was also chairman of the Minnesota State Bar Association committee formed to study the American Law Institute's Youth Conservation Act[7]and secretary of the Minnesota Judicial Council, which studied the organization and procedures of the courts. From 1945 - 1956 he was chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Minnesota Division of Employment and Security, which was responsible for the development and administration of Minnesota's employment security program.[7] Pirsig was a member of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Law.[5] His 30 year tenure as a member of the conference included service in many capacities, such as chairman of committees for uniform acts in arbitration, expunging criminal records, juvenile court, and rules of criminal procedure.[7]

The United States Supreme Court named Pirsig to serve as a member of the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1950. He served on the committee until 1957.[7]


Maynard E. Pirsig was a prolific writer. Many of his publications were about how to improve the judicial system. A list of his publications can be seen at this link: click here

Awards and Honors[edit]

  • 1973 - Herbert Lincoln Harley Award from the American Judicature Society, for outstanding contributions to the improvement of the administration of justice.
  • 1981 - Honorary doctorate (LLD) from William Mitchell Law School.
  • 1985 - University of Minnesota's Outstanding Achievement Award.
  • The University of Minnesota Law School's moot court is named after him, "Maynard Pirsig Moot Court."


In 1963, Pirsig helped draft a bill to revise the state's criminal code. Although some officials believed that it was too lenient and hampered law enforcement, it was passed two years later.[2] In 1957, he publicly urged the University Senate Committee on Student Affairs to expel fraternities and sororities that have racial "bias clauses" in their charters or constitutions.[7]


Pirsig earned a bachelor's degree in 1923 University of Minnesota, and a LL.B degree in 1925 from the University of Minnesota Law School. He attended graduate courses in law at Harvard University from 1931-1932, studying under Roscoe Pound and Felix Frankfurter.[7] During 1932-1933, as further preparation for developing a course in judicial administration, he spent one year in England with his wife and son Robert, studying the English legal system.[7]

Personal life[edit]

Pirsig was born in 1902 in Kossuth County, Iowa, to Gustav and Amelia Pirsig. He was raised on his parents' farm, speaking only German until he began attending school. Following a courtship of several years, he married Harriet Sjobeck in 1925.[7] They had three children, one of whom was Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.[9]


  1. ^ Minnesota State Law Library-Maynard Pirsig Archived 2014-01-05 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ a b c d Chanen, David (1997). "oldest law school teacher in U.S., dies" (PDF). Minnesota Star Tribune. 
  3. ^ Wright, Charles Alan (1997). "Maynard E. Pirsig". William Mitchell Law Review. 
  4. ^ Wolfram, Charles W. (1970). "Maynard E. Pirsig: Idealism in the Service of Judicial Administration". Cornell Law Library. 
  5. ^ a b Thompson, Jessica (2007). "Minnesota's Legal Hall of Fame". Minnesota Law and Politics. 
  6. ^ "Outstanding Achievement Award Recipients". University of Minnesota. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Tietjen, Randall (1997). "Maynard Pirsig: A Chronology". William Mitchell Law Review. 23 (4). 
  8. ^ Hogg, James F. (1997). "Maynard Pirsig". William Mitchell Law Review. 23 (4). 
  9. ^ "Robert M. Pirsig". It Happened in History. American Society of Authors and Writers. Retrieved 2008-02-25.