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News Posted on September 4, 2013

Professor Emeritus Profile: John D. "Jack" Ayer

Professor Emeritus John D.

Being a good lawyer requires much more than a mastery of the technical details of the law, Professor Emeritus John D. "Jack" Ayer explains.  It takes foresight, stability, prudence, and practical wisdom-qualities that usually are learned only through life experience. 

"The goal of law school is to try to compress that experience, under the guidance of good mentors, into three intense, inimitable years so you have the rest of your life to put those good insights to work," said Ayer.

As one of King Hall's most distinguished faculty members through more than three decades of teaching bankruptcy and commercial law, Ayer has served as a mentor to generations of students, many of whom are now national leaders in their fields.  It's an outcome Ayer probably couldn't have anticipated when he began his professional life working as a reporter for the Louisville Times in Kentucky.

"As a reporter, I started meeting lawyers who were no smarter than I was but who were making 12 times more money," Ayer recalled. "So I decided I ought to try to do something with my life, and I enrolled in law school."

Ayer earned his J.D. at his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Louisville, and went on to get an LL.M. from Yale University School of Law.  There he was recruited by Edward L. Barrett, founding dean of UC Davis School of Law, joining the faculty in the fall of 1969. Academia was a good fit for Ayer, who claims to suffer from "attention surplus disorder" and so enjoys being a student that he pursued a career that never required him to "get out of school."

Besides, he made more money teaching law than as a reporter. "I'm the only person I know who went into teaching for the money," he said.

After teaching for five years, he went to work for a boutique firm in Los Angeles, hoping to gain a better sense of the day-to-day practice of bankruptcy law.  He returned to King Hall, then soon found himself recruited to return to Los Angeles as a U.S. bankruptcy judge, and took a leave of absence to serve in that position from 1983-84.

As a judge and as a member of the King Hall faculty (as well as a visiting professor at law schools including Stanford, Pennsylvania, Texas, NYU, and others) Ayer served as a mentor to many leading bankruptcy lawyers and judges. One former clerk and student, Scott McNutt '82, founder and principal of McNutt Law Group in San Francisco, organized the effort to honor Ayer's legacy with the establishment of the John D. Ayer Bankruptcy Chair.

Today, Ayer lives in Chico with his wife Maryanne J. Bertram, pursuing "a pretty conventional retiree agenda of reading and travel," he said. "Indeed perhaps the nicest thing about the freedom from the demands of living is that I can read any damn thing I want."

He also writes an acclaimed blog, Underbelly-buce.blogspot.com, as a kind of "Zen exercise" to keep his mind fresh and focused. ("I would be a happier, wiser, and better-read man if I spent more time reading and following links from Underbelly," UC Berkeley Economist Brad DeLong has written.)

"In some sense, I'm doing what I've always done," Ayer said. "I'm scheduled to teach the Bankruptcy course next spring for what will be about the thirtieth time. This enthusiasm bewilders some people, but not other bankruptcy lawyers. They know that if you want to understand how a society works, you can learn by studying how it acts when things go wrong. And that teaches you what is needful for things to go right."