The first case that law professor Roger Abrams ever handled was historic.
Morgan v. Hennigan—better known as the Boston schools desegregation case— launched a controversial school busing program in 1974, unleashed neighborhood riots that captured national attention, and ended the systematic segregation of the city’s public schools.
The case served as a dramatic beginning to a long and varied career that will end this summer when Abrams retires after 19 years at Northeastern’s School of Law, including three years as its dean.
During his 47 years in the law, Abrams has been dean of three law schools, written nine books, become the official labor arbitrator for Major League Baseball and Walt Disney World, and taught law students for more than three decades.
In his work for Major League Baseball, he has handled numerous high-profile salary cases involving some of the biggest names in the sport. To say that these are high-stakes cases would be an understatement.
“My decisions have made very talented young men very rich—and those are the ones who lost,” he said. “I made the ones who won spectacularly rich.”
Teacher and dean
Affectionately known by students as “Professor Torts and Sports,” Abrams earned fame on campus for his lively classes on sports law, arbitration, and tort law.
“He was a wonderful teacher and the students loved him,” said Mary O’Connell, who taught contracts and family law at Northeastern for 38 years before retiring last year. “Even when his class met first thing on Monday morning, he’d have those students laughing and fully engaged in five minutes.”
Abrams came to Northeastern in 1999 as dean of the law school, after serving as law dean at two other universities—Rutgers and Nova Southeastern.
“I would have liked to stay on as dean longer, but I had to step down when my wife became seriously ill,” he said. “My priority had to be my wife.”
Abram’s wife survived that life-threatening illness and the couple has been married now for 49 years. Abrams continued to teach as the Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern, but always kept one foot firmly planted in the professional world.
“Many law schools are filled with professors who either have never practiced law, or practiced briefly and didn’t like it,” said Abrams. “In order to be a good academic, you have to practice law.”
A passion for baseball
In addition to more than 80 articles and several scholarly books, Abrams has published several books on his favorite sport, including the intersection of law, gambling, politics, and free agency.
His third book focused on the first World Series in 1903, which was played at the Huntington Avenue Fairgrounds, now the site of the Northeastern campus. Future Hall-of-Famer Cy Young led the Boston Americans to victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, and his statue now marks the site of the historic game.
But there’s one problem.
During his research, Abrams discovered two slight inaccuracies in the statue. In addition to trimming down the portly pitcher, the sculptor apparently had some trouble with his compass.
“President Freeland and I were walking past the statue one day on our way back from lunch and I said, ‘Richard, I should tell you that the way the statue is set up, he’s pitching toward third base. Home plate was over by the library.’”
Abrams balances his sense of humor with a deep devotion to the cases he handles, especially those that involve ordinary workers in disputes with their employers over everything from labor conditions to personal injury claims.
As the official arbitrator for Disney World and other cases involving different companies, he is called upon to decide who can be fired and who gets monetary damages for a host of employment violations.
“I take these very seriously,” he said. “There’s a big difference between the way you handle arbitration compared to litigation. These are usually people who work together and may have to work together again the day after arbitration. As an arbiter, one of your most important goals is not to harm the relationship.”
In all, he has arbitrated more than 2,300 cases.
The good fight
In the early 1970s, Abrams was a bright young lawyer fresh out of Harvard Law School and eager to cut his teeth on an important case.
The case he landed couldn’t have been much bigger. The Boston Public Schools had been sued for creating a system in which student and teacher assignments ensured the city schools would remain segregated by race. The NAACP was looking for a lawyer, and Abrams signed up to be part of their pro bono team.
“A lot of people thought the segregation was just a matter of chance based on where people chose to live,” he said. “But we proved it was much more deliberate than that.
“We dismantled the dual school system in Boston. This caused some distress, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”
The distress he referred to was a court order to bus black children to schools in white neighborhoods, which unleashed a burst of violence around the city.
“I’m not saying it was easy or that there was no harm along the way, but it was certainly worth it for those kids,” he said. “We (the NAACP legal team) were children of the 60s, and we thought that the role of lawyers was to make life better—and we did.
“This was probably the most important thing I’ve done in my entire life.”