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, academic, and justice[1]; a leading authority on judicial administration and legal ethics[2].

He was a University of Minnesota Law School professor, from 1933 to 1970, serving as the department's dean from 1948 to 1955. Pirsig later 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.[3]

He served as an interim Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, 1942.

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

Teaching career[edit]

Maynard began teaching Judicial Administration in 1934. His pathbreaking casebook, Cases and Materials on Judicial Administration, 1946, gave birth to a new subject in the field of law.[4] Charles W. Wolfram commented on the book, "...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."[5]

Pirsig wrote one of the first course books on professional ethics - for many years, one of the most widely used course books on the subject in U.S law schools. An excerpt from Cases and Materials on Legal Ethics, Pirsig, 1949, "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."

University of Minnesota Law School 1933-1970[edit]

In 1934, at the University of Minnesota Law School, Professor Pirsig originated a course titled Judicial Administration, which he taught throughout his career, 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.[6] He also taught courses on pleading, ethics and criminal law.

When he was Dean of the Law School, 1948 - 1955, he recruited ten new faculty members. Most were, or became, pillars in the world of legal scholarship, including Charles Alan Wright, Michael I. Sovern, David Louisell, Jesse Dukeminier, and librarian Leon Liddell. Dean Pirsig managed an expansion of the school, including the library. And he developed a training program at the law school, for professionals in delinquency control - training police and judges on how to utilize the American Juvenile Justice System, a system Maynard had been instrumental in introducing to the state.[3] Dean Pirsig managed a difficult period of post-war transition and growth, "But, traditions of excellence were maintained and the foundation was laid for more productive future years."[2] He resigned his position as Dean in 1955, and returned to teaching full time.[7]

Professor Pirsig retired from the University of Minnesota Law School at the age of 68, the university's mandatory retirement age.[7]

•Recipient, University of Minnesota Outstanding Achievement Award in 1985.[8]

•The law school's Mondale Hall houses a lecture hall named in honor of professor Pirsig, which includes an oil painting of him.

•The law school's moot court is, The Maynard Pirsig Moot Court: click here

•Pirsig's Will contained a gift to the university, to encourage returning the Judicial Administration course to their curriculum; which they did.

Mitchell Hamline School of Law 1970-1993[edit]

Mitchell Hamline School of Law (at the time, William Mitchell College of Law), immediately hired Pirsig, then aged 68, after his mandatory retirement from the U of M Law School earlier that year. Pirsig requested that he not be tenured, so they could easily release him from his position if required. He remained a sharp and vibrant professor until age 91. At William Mitchell he taught courses in Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Professional Responsibility, and Comparative Judicial Administration.

Pirsig helped to develop and teach the Comparative Judicial Administration course for William Mitchell College of Law's "Summer in London" program, with Professor Robert E. Oliphant and Professor Eric S. Janus of William Mitchell Pirsig, taught the course in London and Saint Paul, from 1988 - 1991.[7] In London the course was taught together with the English professor Michael Zander.

Maynard Pirsig and Randall Tietjen co authored, Court Procedure and the Separation of Powers in Minnesota, 15 WM. MITCHELL L. REv. 141. 1989.

Maynard received an honorary doctorate from William Mitchell in 1981.

He made a donation for the construction of the Warren E. Burger Law Library,[9] which houses the Maynard Pirsig Study Hall. There, stands a vitrine of Maynard's legal and personal memorabilia, including some of his U of M lectures recorded onto vinyl record albums circa 1946.

Minnesota Supreme Court[edit]

In 1942, at the age of 40, Pirsig served 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.[3]

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

Selected achievements[edit]

  • Executive director of the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Society. 1926 - 1931
  • Secretary of the Minnesota Judicial Council, which studied the organization and procedures of the courts. 1937 - 1952.
  • Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Minnesota Division of Employment and Security, 1945 - 1956, responsible for the development and administration of Minnesota's employment security program.[7]
  • Member of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Law.[6] 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] 1947 - 1977.
  • Chairman, Juvenile Court Committee. 1953 - 1958
  • Member, U.S. Department of Labor's Industry Committee for Puerto Rico. Beginning in 1955, later chairman for four years.
  • Reporter for the special legislative advisory committee created to prepare a revision of the Minnesota Criminal Code. 1957.
  • Member, U.S Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 1960 - 1970.
  • Spends three months, with James F. Hogg, in Indonesia reviewing the Indonesian judicial system and advising the Indonesian government on improvements. 1968.
  • Consultant to the Minnesota Supreme Court's Committee on Rules of Criminal Procedure. 1971 - 1990.
  • Member, Minnesota Supreme Court's Commission on Juvenile Courts. 1976
  • Lectured on judicial administration to the Supreme Court of El Salvador. 1991
Meeting on Lake Lougee, MN, 1957, of a special legislative advisory committee created to prepare a revision of the Minnesota criminal code. Pictured, Left to Right, William P. Murphy(?), Oscar Knutson, Harold Schultz, Joseph Bright, Maynard Pirsig, Bruce Stone (?).


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 College of Law.
  • 1985 - Outstanding Achievement Award, University of Minnesota Law School.
  • 1987 - William Mitchell College of Law establishes the Pirsig Distinguished Lecturer Series.
  • The University of Minnesota Law School's Moot Court is named after him, "Maynard Pirsig Moot Court."

Events of Interest[edit]

In 1957, while Dean of its law school, Maynard publicly urged the University of Minnesota to expel fraternities and sororities that had racial "bias clauses" in their charters or constitutions.[7]

In 1963, Pirsig helped draft a bill to revise the Minnesota State Criminal Code. Although some officials believed that it was too lenient and hampered law enforcement, it was passed two years later.[3]


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, Wanda (1943), Jean (1934), and Robert M. Pirsig (1928 – 2017) author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.[10]

Minneapolis home, 1932 - 1995, where Maynard and Harriet Pirsig lived and raised their three children, Robert, Jean and Wanda. Son, Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, had the bedroom with the front, left window on the second floor.


  1. ^ Minnesota State Law Library-Maynard Pirsig Archived 2014-01-05 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ a b Stein, Robert A. (1980). In Pursuit of Excellence. Minnesota: Mason Publishing. p. 127. 
  3. ^ a b c d Chanen, David (1997). "oldest law school teacher in U.S., dies" (PDF). Minnesota Star Tribune. 
  4. ^ Wright, Charles Alan (1997). "Maynard E. Pirsig". William Mitchell Law Review. 
  5. ^ Wolfram, Charles W. (1970). "Maynard E. Pirsig: Idealism in the Service of Judicial Administration". Cornell Law Library. 
  6. ^ a b Thompson, Jessica (2007). "Minnesota's Legal Hall of Fame". Minnesota Law and Politics. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Tietjen, Randall (1997). "Maynard Pirsig: A Chronology". William Mitchell Law Review. 23 (4). 
  8. ^ "Outstanding Achievement Award Recipients". University of Minnesota. 
  9. ^ Hogg, James F. (1997). "Maynard Pirsig". William Mitchell Law Review. 23 (4). 
  10. ^ "Robert M. Pirsig". It Happened in History. American Society of Authors and Writers. Retrieved 2008-02-25.