After a four-year stint at Duke Law School, Professor Catherine Fisk joined the UC Irvine law faculty and returned to Southern California, where she had been on the law faculty at USC and Loyola Law School. An expert in labor and employment law and law & humanities, Prof. Fisk is especially interested in how globalization and the evolution of the information economy affect American workers. And she’s been pretty busy recently: Among other things, she completed a 12-year book project, she was appointed to a union’s ethics board, she was awarded an endowed Chancellor’s Chair by the university, and she’s working on developing the law school’s innovative new curriculum. She recently sat down for an interview with Tom Lerner, a UCI double major in Literary Journalism and Criminology, Law & Society.
Your field, labor and employment law, is an area that most people are at least somewhat familiar with because most people have seen or experienced workplace conflict. What drew you to the field originally?
All of us work. Labor and employment laws apply to everyone and they directly and profoundly affect our lives. The field allows a lawyer to combine an ambitious, progressive social agenda with a law practice that is intellectually intriguing and always changing.
What is the main argument of your latest book, Working Knowledge: Employee Innovation and the Rise of Corporate Intellectual Property, 1800-1930 (University of North Carolina Press)?
The book [released in Fall 2009] is a history of the 19th century law governing employer and employee relations over workplace knowledge, including patents, copyrights and trade secrets. I spent 12 years on the research and writing, and did archival research on many fields of law and many sectors of the economy, including manufacturing, book publishing and theater. The book reminds us that we enjoyed rapid technological development in the 19th century even though employees, rather than employers, owned most intellectual property rights to innovations generated in the workplace. Today’s mix of individual and corporate ownership of the legal rights to workplace knowledge and employee-generated intellectual property is neither necessary nor sufficient to a robust and innovative economy.
You have recently been named to the ethics review board of the Service Employees International Union. Why was this board created?
The SEIU is the largest union in the United States, with over 2 million members. It is a diverse and innovative institution that represents all types of workers, including janitors, government employees and nurses. Joining me on the Ethics Review Board are Reverend Nelson Johnson, a pastor of Faith Community Church in North Carolina, and Ben Sachs, an associate professor at Harvard Law School. We will help the union address complaints from its members about the governance of the union and the management of the union’s finances.
What other research projects are you working on?
I have published an innovative casebook, Labor Law in the Contemporary Workplace (West Publishing Co., 2009), which I wrote with four other labor law professors. The book enables law professors to teach a labor law course focusing on labor law as it is currently practiced today. In addition, I am starting work on another book that will be a 20th century history of attribution of work (think of screen credit in Hollywood).
You have been awarded an endowed Chancellor’s Chair by the university and will be giving a lecture on legal history for the investiture ceremony. What does the honor mean to you and what will you be speaking about?
It’s a great honor to be among the very distinguished faculty here at UCI who hold Chancellor’s Chairs. I plan to speak about my new research on how attribution of creative work came to play the important role in promoting entrepreneurship and vibrant labor markets in the 20th century that ownership of intellectual property rights in work played in the 19th century. Since my lecture will occur shortly after the founding class of law students arrives at UCI, I hope to use it as the occasion to introduce our law students to the value to lawyers of studying law from interdisciplinary perspectives of history and the humanities.
Duke Law Journal published your article, “The NLRB in Administrative Law Exile: Problems With Its Structure and Function and Suggestions for Reform,” on labor law during the Bush Administration. What was the focus of that article?
In that article, my co-author, Deborah Malamud, and I argue that the controversial policy changes implemented by the National Labor Relations Board during the Bush Administration revealed longstanding problems within American labor law. The article analyzes the obstacles that the agency faces in regulating labor relations; for example, the agency is prohibited by statute from employing economists. The article concludes by suggesting reforms that Congress, the President, the newly constituted NLRB in the Obama Administration, and the federal courts can implement to improve the quality of NLRB decisionmaking, rather than just putting their mark on its political leanings.
You left a comfortable position at prestigious Duke Law School to come to an entirely new law school with no track record. Why?
One of the most attractive things about coming to UC Irvine was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a great institution from scratch. Many law professors and lawyers believe that both elite and non-elite law schools could do a better job of training students for the practice of law. Particularly now, as law firms, government, and public-interest organizations face budget cuts and have fewer resources available to train young lawyers, law schools need to combine the rigorous intellectual training at which they have long excelled with equally rigorous practical skills-oriented training. At UCI, we do not have to change the status quo to innovate in the curriculum; we have the chance to do it right from the very beginning. Also, and equally as important, UCI already had an amazing community of scholars in the humanities and social sciences who study law from interdisciplinary perspective, so it offers wonderful colleagues and opportunities for scholarly collaboration outside the law school. We are building a law school at a university that already has renowned scholars outside the law school who study law, and it’s been a great treat to get to know them and to talk about collaborating on research.