Elisabeth Mayer, ’20, chose the University of Chicago Law School the way may students do: she fell in love with the tightknit culture. She knew that her dad and grandpa were alumni, but it wasn't until her senior year at Scripps College in California that she learned that there was more to the legacy.
“There was a question on the [Law School] application about family connections, and I called my parents because I wanted to know when my grandpa had graduated," she said. “And they said, ‘You know, you should list your great grandpa, too.”
Growing up, Elisabeth’s family encouraged her to forge her own path. They didn’t pressure her to study in Hyde Park or even to pursue law—a Mayer tradition that stretches so deep that Elisabeth has relatives who were already on their way to the top of Chicago’s legal profession when the Law School opened in 1902. But she knew that her dad, Gregory Mayer, ’93, and her grandpa, Frank D. (“Denny”) Mayer Jr., ’59, had built successful careers after graduating from the Law School. Denny was a partner at a major law firm bearing the family name— Chicago-based Mayer Brown (as it is now known), co-founded by Elisabeth’s great-great-great uncle Levy Mayer in 1881. Elisabeth’s great grandfather, Frank D. Mayer, ’23, had worked there, too. So had his father, Isaac H. Mayer, who joined his brother Levy at the firm in 1890. Greg had almost bucked tradition: he became an aeronautical engineer but ultimately spent most of his career as a patent attorney, first at a law firm and, later, as the chief intellectual property counsel at a healthcare products company.
“I was aware of the law in the family—it was kind of hard to avoid,” said Elisabeth, who remembers visiting both her dad and grandpa at work as a child. She never knew Frank Mayer, who died in 1968. “I just don’t think I knew the full extent of it until later.”
Elisabeth graduated on Saturday, concluding a Law School career that included clinic work like her dad and a University of Chicago Law Review position like her grandpa. Her diploma and hooding ceremony won’t be the Rockefeller Chapel event she had long imagined; instead, she watched a virtual ceremony in semi-quarantine at her parents’ Wilmette home and some photos in the cap and gown she rented. Greg bestowed her Law School hood, but when he did, Denny was quarantined several miles away in his own home, watching on his own computer. (Denny was listed in the program as her official family hooder, though—Elisabeth’s way of including both. Family hooders—alumni who take the place of faculty hooders for immediate family members—are a relatively new tradition).
Still, the unconventional celebration will mark Elisabeth’s full passage into a family legacy that began in 1920 when Frank Mayer enrolled in the Law School on the heels of an influenza pandemic, launching a century’s worth of family bonds and UChicago service. Frank and Denny each served on the Law School’s Visiting Committee and in other alumni positions, and Greg has co-chaired several Reunion Committees.
“Few, if any, families have a multi-generational connection to the Law School analogous to the Mayers,” said former Dean Geoffrey R. Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, who taught both Greg and Elisabeth and, as dean, worked closely with Denny, who served as vice president and president of the Law School’s alumni association between 1988 and 1990.
For Elisabeth, the legacy is even more personal: it’s something that connects her in new ways to two people she loves.
“The University of Chicago is known for a certain way of thinking and a certain way of looking at the world—there’s a dedication to inquiry and justice that just makes it really special—and to share that with my dad and grandpa is really wonderful,” Elisabeth said. “I've always been really close with my dad and my grandpa, and some of what I’ve always admired about them are things I’m now starting to see in myself.”
Despite her history, Elisabeth’s path is one she created around her own passions and priorities. As a 1L, Elisabeth won two legal writing awards, and later earned a spot as an articles editor on the Law Review. In April, she helped convince the Bureau of Prisons to release a COVID-19-vulnerable man to home confinement as part of her work for the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, working with professors, other students, and a federal defender to write 63 pages of motions in a week while she was juggling her classes and adjusting to quarantine.
“I’m so proud of her for that,” Greg said.
In her three years, Elisabeth pursued meaningful projects, serving as events coordinator for If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, entering data for a report on gender equity at the Law School by the Women’s Advocacy Project, and participating in the Human Rights Law Society. Last summer she worked at Kirkland & Ellis, and has accepted an offer to return as an associate after clerking for Judge Frank Easterbrook on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and Judge John Tharp of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Throughout all of it, she built relationships with peers and with her professors—the kind, she hopes, that last for many years.
Which, if her dad, grandpa, and great grandpa are any indication, is something Mayers tend to do when they leave the Law School.
If he had to guess, Greg Mayer would say his first Law School memory had something to do with the Kurlands and the Levis. Greg’s parents, Denny and Linda, socialized regularly with Mary Jane and Phil Kurland, a longtime Law School professor, as well as Kate and Ed Levi, a Law School professor who served as Law School dean, University of Chicago president, and US attorney general.
“That was probably my earliest interaction with the Law School community—going over to the Kurland’s or having that circle of friends over to our house,” Greg Mayer said. He doesn’t remember much more than that, other than a general sense that “these were all really smart people.”
The law and the Law School were a big part of Denny’s life, both as an adult and growing up. His dad, Frank, who specialized in banking, trust, and corporation law, served on the Law School’s Visiting Committee for nearly two decades, from 1951 until his death in 1968. Beginning in 1956, Frank was part of the 32-member committee (headed by his classmate, University Trustee Glen A. Lloyd, ’23) overseeing the construction of the Eero Saarinen-designed building south of the Midway, which opened in 1959. In 1985, 17 years after his death, the Nathan and Emily Blum Foundation established the now-expired Frank D. Mayer Fund to underwrite criminal justice projects at the Law School.
Frank himself had grown up around the legal profession. His dad, Isaac, had been a leading trademark and competition lawyer who in 1928 represented the Wrigley Company in an unfair competition case before the US Supreme Court. And then there was Isaac’s brother, Levy, who argued at least seven cases before the US Supreme Court, defended the Iroquois Theatre following the deadly 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire, and defended Charles Comiskey in 1919 during the Black Sox Scandal. When he died in 1922, Levy Mayer was considered to be one of the richest lawyers in America. During Denny’s third year, Frank spoke about his Uncle Levy at the Law School’s “Mayer Lecture”—a speech that was reprinted in the 1959 issue of the Law School Record.
Denny, who was part of the last Law School class to spend all three years in the original Stuart Hall location, was a strong student. During his 3L year, he was among eight students elected to the Chicago Chapter of the Order of the Coif. He was an associate editor on Volume 26 of the Law Review, which, six decades later, would become a favorite topic of conversation with his granddaughter, an editor for Volume 87.
“He was so excited that I got onto the Law Review, and he wanted to talk about it all the time,” Elisabeth said. “I still give him updates, like ‘Oh, the article I really worked hard on got published,’ and we’ll talk about it.”
When Denny graduated, he joined the firm started by his great uncle and built a successful corporate law practice. For a time, he worked in the firm’s office in Paris—that’s where Greg was born—before moving to Hyde Park with Linda and their children. They stayed there for several years before moving to Chicago’s North Shore.
Like his father, Denny was devoted to the Law School.
“Denny was part of this very traditional core of loyal university of Chicago alumni that were very visible in the 1980s,” said Douglas Baird, the Harry A. Bigelow Distinguished Service Professor of Law and the Law School’s dean between 1994 and 1999. When Baird was a new faculty member in the early 1980s, he remembers encountering Denny, who was often at dinners and other events, engaging in enthusiastic conversations about the Law School.
Denny served on the Visiting Committee between 1970 and 1973, and, in addition to serving on the Alumni Association, he spent several years in the 1980s on the capital campaign committee, raising money for a major building expansion that was completed in 1987.
“I had a particularly close relationship with Denny, who was not only an extraordinarily successful and important lawyer, but also an extraordinarily supportive alum of the Law School,” said Stone, who served as dean between 1987 and 1994. “Denny was one of a handful of alums of his generation who were absolutely essential to the vision and the success of the institution.”
Despite all this, Denny and Linda didn’t pressure their children to pursue law—and Greg, an aspiring fighter pilot, didn’t at first. Bad eyesight ruled out that career path, though, so he earned an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in the same field from Stanford. But after working a few years at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company, the family profession beckoned and he entered the Law School in 1990, five years before Elisabeth’s birth.
There, he worked in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic under Gary Palm, a favorite professor along with Randall Schmidt, Dennis Hutchinson, and Baird, with whom he occasionally played racquetball.
“I had Doug Baird for Contracts, and just remember him having this awesome sense of humor and doing these little expressions, these shoulder shrugs, and saying, ‘Life’s too short,’” Greg said, laughing.
Greg remained engaged in the Law School after graduation, serving on Reunion planning committees in 1998, 2003, and 2018, and keeping in touch with his professors.
“Greg was a great, great student and an enthusiastic young alum when I was dean,” Baird said.
Several years ago, when Greg brought Elisabeth to see the Law School during her senior year in college, he and Baird had coffee and traded updates in the Green Lounge. In many ways, it wasn’t unusual for Baird; the Law School’s small size lends itself to enduring bonds between faculty and students.
“One of the great pleasures of teaching is that you have these people that you remain in touch with for many years,” Baird said.
Ultimately, the bonds between faculty and students captured Elisabeth’s attention. Visiting the Law School, she noticed that the students in Professor John Rappaport’s Criminal Law class and Professor Genevieve Lakier’s Criminal Procedure class seemed to have an easy camaraderie, with each other and with their professors.
“The students laughed often, and it wasn’t a forced laughter,” she said. “These were all really interesting, funny people. And I thought, ‘They're really enjoying this.’”
In the Green Lounge, as her dad caught up with Baird and with Schmidt, she saw a genuine warmth.
“My dad’s relationship with his professors ended up being a huge deciding factor for me,” Elisabeth said. “I liked so much about UChicago’s small environment, and connecting with faculty was one of the most important things.”
And so it was that Elisabeth followed Frank, Denny, and Greg to the University of Chicago. There, she built her own strong relationships with professors like Lakier, for whom she worked as a research assistant, and the faculty of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic—Alison Siegler, Erica Zunkel, and Judith Miller—whom she calls “incredible advocates and teachers.” She worked as a research assistant for Siegler and Miller, too. She grew close with her peers, developing friendships with “supportive, passionate, and interesting people.”
Along the way, she told her dad and grandpa about it.
“The Law School,” she said, “was something special to talk about with them.”
The legacy, as it turned out, mattered most in those little moments—such as when she took the Law School’s distinctive Elements of the Law class and thought about how her dad and grandpa had taken it too. (It wasn’t added to the curriculum until 14 years after Frank’s graduation).
Or when she took Patent Law and began to understand her dad’s work in a different way.
“It was nice to get a deeper appreciation of his career and then to have these shared things to talk about on a different level,” Elisabeth said.
The Law School has been an especially nice to share with Denny, who suffered a traumatic brain injury after a fall in 2002. His memory falters, and communication isn’t always easy, but concrete links to his past are often easy paths to conversation.
“I feel like I've had a different connection with him since I started law school and that's been really meaningful for me,” she said.
Sometimes they talk about Stone, who was Elisabeth’s Elements of the Law professor and whom Denny saw recently when Stone spoke at the North Shore Senior Center, which isn’t far from Denny’s home. They’ve talked about corporate law, and journals work, and the sense of community at the Law School.
“He still talks about how many of his classmates and professors ended up being lifelong friends and people that really influenced him,” Elisabeth said.
In these conversations, Elisabeth sees her dad and grandpa—and sometimes even herself—more completely.
“Part of realizing that you're an adult is seeing that you can relate to your parents and grandparents as people rather than just through that relationship,” Elisabeth said. “It’s exciting that the things I became passionate about are so similar to what my dad and grandpa have done in their lives. I appreciate that we all had this shared experience at the University of Chicago.”
Contributing: Iris Beare