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Remembering Michael Wachter

September 07, 2022

Emeritus Professor Michael L. Wachter was a renowned business law scholar and visionary builder of the Institute for Law & Economics.

Professor Emeritus Michael Wachter Professor Emeritus Michael WachterMichael L. Wachter, William B. and Mary Barb Johnson Professor of Law and Economics, Emeritus, passed away on September 3.

Wachter was a prodigious, award-winning scholar, an influential teacher who nurtured numerous high-profile careers, and a visionary builder of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s renowned Institute for Law & Economics (ILE). He was emblematic of the movement to infuse a cross-disciplinary approach into legal education and other fields of study.

During his remarkable 50-year career at Penn, Wachter taught at the Law School, the School of Arts and Sciences (Professor of Economics), and the Wharton School (Professor of Management) and served as the University’s Deputy Provost.

“Michael Wachter’s contributions to Penn and to the Law School cannot be overstated,” said Ted Ruger, Dean of the Law School and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law. “He reshaped how we think about issues surrounding corporate law with his singular vision and inspired and launched generations of students into fulfilling careers through his dedicated teaching and mentorship. We mourn his loss but celebrate a consequential life.”

Ed Rock L’83 served alongside Wachter as co-director of the ILE.

“He was the consummate University citizen,” said Rock, now Martin Lipton Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute for Corporate Governance & Finance at NYU School of Law. “He was always about making Penn a better place. It was never about building his reputation.”

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Wachter joined the Penn faculty in 1970, after earning a master’s degree and a PhD in economics from Harvard. Ultimately, he spent 36 years at the Law School.

“He was one of the pillars of the business law faculty,” said Jill E. Fisch, Saul A. Fox Distinguished Professor of Business Law and current Co-Director of ILE. “When you think business law at Penn, you think Michael Wachter.”

Wachter elevated the ILE from the moment he took over in 1984, turning it into a preeminent center for the advancement of cross-disciplinary research employing the collective wisdom of academics, lawyers, business leaders, judges, policymakers, and regulators during roundtables and conferences.

Professor Michael Wachter with Larry Hamermesh.  Professor Michael Wachter with Larry Hamermesh. “Years ago, Professor Wachter was able to envision how vigorous discussion could spark lively debate and lead to reconsideration of law and policy,” said Larry Hamermesh, ILE Executive Director. “That was his genius.”

Michael A. Fitts, former Dean of the Law School and current President of Tulane University, said Wachter possessed “an innate ability to understand and create intellectual synergy. He instinctively knew the power of bringing different perspectives together in understanding and solving problems. ILE drew faculty from across the university to engage with prominent practitioners from the bar and judiciary. This unique leadership of ILE fostered incredible insights into the inner workings of corporate law, solidifying its status as the preeminent corporate law center in the United States.”

Before his retirement in 2020, Wachter established himself as one of the premier scholars in the field of Labor Law and Economics and then later in Corporate Law and Corporate Finance.

Along the way, he became a trusted advisor to deans and university presidents, as well as a sought-after economic consultant for the National Science Foundation, the Council of Economic Advisors, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Federal Reserve System, as well as a Commissioner on the Minimum Wage Study Commission established by Congress. Invariably, he brought to bear his intellectual curiosity.

“As much as he launched the ILE into prominence,” said Fitts, “Michael also consistently gave me very thoughtful advice as a young academic, and later as Dean. He was my institutional mentor — and friend.”

A productive scholar, Wachter edited a number of books and authored and co-authored well over 100 papers, earning multiple citations on best-of-the-year lists. Rock, who co-wrote several pieces, emphasized Wachter’s ingenuity.

“Michael approached things with fresh eyes,” Rock said. “He had the youngest mind of anybody I knew because he wasn’t stuck about thinking of things one way.”

Wachter taught Corporate Law and Corporate Finance at the Law School.

“His former students are among the most prominent practitioners and judges in the country,” Fisch said. “He’s really left a mark on the broader profession.”

In honor of Wachter’s surpassing achievements, the Law School established the Michael L. Wachter Distinguished Fellowship in Law and Policy in July 2020, naming the Honorable Leo E. Strine, Jr. L’88 to the position.

Strine, former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice and Chancellor on the Delaware Court of Chancery, taught an advanced seminar on Corporate Law with Wachter for a generation and has been an active participant in the ILE as a member of the board of advisors. Wachter and Strine spearheaded a popular series of business law programs focusing on the role of the Chancery Court that gave students and the larger ILE community access to the real world of corporate law and inspired the creation of the important corporate law history site, the Delaware Corporate Law Center.

“The Penn community lost a quiet giant,” said Strine, a longtime Adjunct Professor at the Law School and now also Of Counsel at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, and Katz. “From his foundational role shaping the nationally influential Institute for Law & Economics, to his incredible management advice to Penn presidents and deans, to his innovative and thought-provoking scholarship, Michael was a role model for us all. But, most of all, it was his constant focus on doing what was best for the students and being there for them – that is the example we all should emulate.”

When Wachter retired in 2020, he wrote, “My memories of Penn Law will always be infused by gratitude for the opportunity to engage with wonderful students and colleagues.”

Wachter is remembered as the beloved husband of Susan Wachter, devoted father of Jessica Wachter and Jonathan Wachter, and cherished grandfather of eight. Susan and Jessica are tenured members of the Wharton School faculty.

The family suggests that contributions in Michael’s memory be made to the Michael Wachter Endowed Business Law Fund at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School or to the charity of your choice.

Tributes to Professor Michael Wachter

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I am truly grateful for having had the opportunity to be a student in Professor Wachter’s classes and to get to know him during my time at Penn Law. His classes were engaging and memorable and his advice and mentorship was always thoughtful and meaningful. He was simply a fantastic teacher and person who will be missed. My sincere condolences to the Wachter family and the Penn Law community.
Andrew Mariniello L’05

I was very saddened to learn of Professor Wachter’s passing, and wish to express my deep condolences to his family and loved ones. He was a great teacher and educator, among other things. He initiated me into the then still somewhat novel subject of law and economics when I was a Penn Law student and took his classes in that area. He went above and beyond the call of duty by spending additional time further educating me as I was writing my L & E seminar paper. He very kindly volunteered to support my federal clerkship applications with a recommendation letter; I will never forget that he asked me to write the first draft (at first I thought he was joking but he was not). And without his support, I would not have been awarded the John M. Olin Prize in Law and Economics. In later years, after I became a lecturer and adjunct professor at Penn Law, he treated me with both professional and personal courtesy and as a peer (as did my other former Penn Law professor, Ed Rock, whose remembrances of Professor Wachter in the September 7 Penn Law piece as a “consummate University citizen” are quite consistent with my own). Professor Wachter’s passing is quite a loss for the Penn community in addition to, of course, his family and friends. May God rest his soul.
Peter N. Flocos (Penn affiliations: BA (College), BS (Wharton), JD (Law School); Adjunct Professor, Law School; Lecturer, Wharton)

It was a privilege to have gotten to know and work with Professor Wachter as his student and then teaching assistant in fall 2013. I benefitted from countless indelible lessons on corporate law but more importantly from his singular commitment to teaching and mentoring that extended beyond his classroom and the Law School. And from his constant warmth and sense of humor at every turn. My sincerest condolences to his family and all of those who knew and loved him.
Alex Lebow Co-Founder & CEO, Say Technologies C’11 L’14

Professor Wachter was a friend and mentor while I was at Penn Law and one of my favorite professors. He was very practical and thoughtful in his approach to teaching and I felt that he sincerely cared about the learning aspect of each student’s education and preparing us to be successful lawyers. I also fondly remember his great sense of humor, he kept class enjoyable. He will be missed, and I’m grateful for his help to me during my law school years.
Matthew Grant, Penn Law / Wharton class of 2011

Professor Wachter was a father and a teacher. I loved his Corporate Finance classes and will miss him greatly. May his soul rest in peace, Amen!

My deep condolences and sympathies to Michael’s family and loved ones. I took multiple classes with Professor Wachter and was a research assistant for him during my 1L summer. He was certainly one of the most influential professors I had and I always looked up to him. A true loss for the community.
Jonathan Schulman L’03

I was thinking about Professor Wachter a couple of days ago. I just wished I could bump into him, so I can express my gratitude for all the positive impact he had on my life. I’ll remember him forever.
Jad Kazan, LLM’2012, L’2014

I was in Prof. Wachter’s several classes from 2003 to 2005, including his corporate law, corporate finance, and seminar on advanced topics (with Prof. Strine). As a corporate law professor now in Taiwan, I learned every foundational piece about corporate law from him. He is the reason why I decided to become a corporate law scholar. I always remember sitting in the first (or second row) of his class and hearing him calling students’ names to answer questions. The way he taught was powerful, penetrating, and vigorous (of course, with his impeccable suit). I became his fan immediately after the first class, and his articles continuously inspired me to study and learn more in this field of learning. Even now, I still remember the stomach ache and tension I experienced when he called on my name to answer questions in his corporate law class, which I rarely experienced in any other place around the world, and the excitement when he asked a question in his corporate finance course and I finally got it right (I mean “correct” but not “approximately right”) for the first time as the whole class remained silent. I would say that was one of the most exciting moments of my five-year study at Penn Law. It is a sad moment to learn Prof. Wachter passing away. It is a loss for the law school and the whole corporate law community. As the memory of his talk at various ILE lectures and seminars is still vivid to me even at this moment, I am sure he and his works will continue to influence the corporate law scholarship (still among the best at all in my mind), and live in our cherished memory.
Chien-Chung Lin, LL.M (2003-2004) and S.J.D.(2008)