In Memoriam: Professor of Law Emeritus Ralph Brill
The Chicago-Kent College of Law community is saddened by the loss of Professor of Law Emeritus Ralph L. Brill. He passed away on Friday at the age of 83.
Brill had been a member of Chicago-Kent’s faculty since 1961, and he taught more than 8,500 students over the years. He served as associate dean from 1970 to 1973, and acting dean from 1973 to 1974.
“Ralph Brill has left an indelible mark on all of the students, faculty, and alumni who have been part of the Chicago-Kent community for the past 58 years,” says Chicago-Kent Dean Harold J. Krent. “He leaves behind an enduring legacy of excellence in teaching and innovation in establishing a top-flight legal writing program that has been emulated far and wide.”
The son of Romanian immigrants, Brill was born in Chicago. He earned his bachelor’s degree and juris doctor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he served as associate editor of the University of Illinois Law Forum. At Chicago-Kent, Brill taught Torts, Products Liability, Advanced Torts, and a pair of seminars—Current Issues in Tort Law and Famous Trials in History. He was also an appellate consultant in many important cases, mostly in the torts field.
For 14 years, Brill was the director of the country’s first three-year legal writing program at a law school, which was established at Chicago-Kent in 1977. The legal writing program was ground-breaking because it viewed legal writing as an essential and ongoing learning experience throughout a student’s law school career. It included a required advanced research class as well as practice-specific advanced courses, which was unheard of at that time. The law school also hired full-time legal writing faculty. A Visiting Assistant Professor program was added in later years to teach first-year legal writing courses, and many of those instructors went onto teaching careers at other law schools.
The widely successful legal writing program became a model for other law schools, and Brill became a pioneer in this area of legal education. He was a past chair of the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Section on Legal Writing, Reasoning and Research, and a former director of the Legal Writing Institute (LWI) and of the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD). In 1997, Brill, along with Susan L. Brody, Christina L. Kunz, Richard K. Neumann Jr., and Marilyn R. Walter, collaborated on the first edition of the ABA Sourcebook on Legal Writing Programs, which compiled information on legal writing programs and best practices.
In a 2002 article in the Chicago-Kent Dean’s Report, Brill said that he originally planned to teach for a year, enlist in the United States Army, and then practice law. Once he started teaching, he fell in love with it and never stopped. Brill went on to say that “the best thing about teaching is that it keeps you young. You have to constantly adapt to new students, new attitudes, and push yourself to create new ways to motivate them.”
Students and faculty knew Brill as someone who had a genuine care and concern for his students and colleagues. A 1993 Chicago-Kent alumni magazine article noted that he helped legal writing instructors on numerous occasions, “going so far as babysitting for their small children in his office.” The article said that Brill got a kick out of doing this and that he had little toys and gadgets in his office for such occasions. With his long institutional memory, Brill was also known for his invaluable role as keeper of and contributor to the Chicago-Kent archives.
Professor of Law Emeritus Howard Chapman met Brill 48 years ago, when Brill interviewed him for a teaching position. Chapman says he will be forever grateful to Brill for his long and rewarding career with the law school, which included serving as assistant dean while Brill was acting dean and later as associate dean from 1974 to 1979 and 1990 to 1998. Chapman says Brill taught him how to teach and was his mentor at every stage of his career, from teaching him how to use the mimeograph machine at one of the law school’s earlier locations at 10 North Franklin Street, to giving him advice on how to teach his first Torts and Federal Courts course—a course he didn’t take in law school. Brill was a popular professor, Chapman says, and often used videos and PowerPoint presentations to bring cases to life.
For 25 years, Chapman’s office was next to Brill’s. Every day after classes, Chapman walked into Brill’s office and they talked about their respective days.
“We shared everything about our personal and professional lives. After I retired, we met regularly for lunch and reminisced about the ‘good old days,’” Chapman says. “My friend Ralph was a sweet, kind, wonderful man. I will always miss him deeply.”
Brill’s leadership was instrumental in the establishment of the Moot Court Honor Society at Chicago-Kent, an invitation-only honor society comprising the top students in the legal writing program who represent the school in interscholastic competitions. Brill was the MCHS’s first faculty advisor, and led the program for more than a decade, during which its students won numerous national and regional titles, including the best brief award in the National Moot Court Competition.
In 2011, the law school established its first endowed faculty chair and named it in honor of Brill. Adrian Walters, the Ralph L. Brill Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent, said that Brill joked with him frequently and self-effacingly about being saddled with his name.
“At this sad time, it is a source of some comfort to me that our community was able to honor him properly during his lifetime through the establishment of the Ralph L. Brill chair. I am proud to have my name associated with his and to carry with me the constant inspiration of his legacy and mission,” Walters says. “He was a fantastic educator, a true educational pioneer, a fearless advocate, and a loyal friend, as well as being a significant portion of Chicago-Kent’s institutional memory.”
Chicago-Kent's Ilana Diamond Rovner Appellate Advocacy Competition presents a Ralph L. Brill Award for the best brief each year. Brill also has an award named after him from the Chicago-Kent Student Bar Association.
Over the years, Brill received numerous awards for his contributions to the field of legal writing, including the 2006 Burton Award for Outstanding Contributions to Legal Writing Education; the AALS Section on Legal Writing, Reasoning and Research Annual Award; the ALWD/LWI 2005 Thomas F. Blackwell Award for Outstanding Achievement in the field of Legal Writing; and the ALWD Leadership Award. The LWI/ALWD named an award after Brill in 2011, which will be given periodically to honor those in the legal academy who, for 50 years or more, have assisted their colleagues and students in mastering legal analysis, research, and writing. Brill was its first recipient.
“The term ‘brill’ is used as a short form for ‘brilliant,’ which refers to shining brightly, radiating light, excellent, wonderful, and exceedingly intelligent,” former ALWD President Mary Garvey Algero said in a 2011 press release announcing the Ralph L. Brill Award. “In legal writing circles, the term ‘Brill’ is also associated with Ralph Brill, a man who has shone brightly, has radiated light on his school and his colleagues, has demonstrated excellence, is wonderful, and exceedingly intelligent.”
Reflecting on his 50th year of teaching in a personal essay for the Chicago-Kent alumni magazine in 2011, Brill said that he took great pride and personal satisfaction in being part of building a great law school. But most of all, he said he fondly remembers all of the students that he taught.
“I have gained the friendship of literally thousands of former students,” he wrote. “My reward has been to see former students, who may have struggled in the first year in my Torts or Legal Writing classes, excel as practicing lawyers, possibly using the knowledge and skills that I helped inculcate in them. It has been a great 50 years!”
He leaves behind a son, Ed (Deborah) Brill; daughter, Alisa Brill (Matt Seaquist); five grandchildren, Alexis Brill, Amanda Seaquist, Hunter Seaquist, Megan Brill and Chloe Brill; and loving partner, Karin Mika.
Funeral services were held on June 25 in Arlington Heights. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to PAWS Chicago. To share remembrances and leave condolences, visit www.shalom2.com.
The Chicago-Kent community will hold memorial services for Brill from 4-6 p.m., Tuesday, July 9, in Richard B. Ogilvie Auditorium at its campus at 565 West Adams Street, Chicago. Alumni can RVSP for the memorial service on the Alumni Association website.
"Veteran Chicago-Kent professor, legal writing pioneer dies at 83," Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, July 1, 2019
"Ralph Brill, longtime professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, dies at 83," Chicago Tribune, July 6, 2019