Professor Spotlight: Seth Chertok

Professor Chertok conducting a Torts lesson (Photo taken by Gaetano D'Anna).

Within a few weeks of teaching at University of Florida Levin College of Law, Professor Seth Chertok has already proven to be a stand-out addition to the faculty.

“My self-portrait would be me, aging in a world marked by its changing “Ages,” and “a me” going with my two hats on, one dreamy and the other pragmatic.”

Chertok graduated from the University of Chicago, studied in France, then headed to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Going in, he knew that he wanted to work with corporations, what he sees as the wealth-promoting “wind power” that “spins the central windmill” of our industrial society – a thing that propels our “age,” functionally and intellectually.

After law school, Chertok returned to his native Midwest America. After developing his specialization as a private equity lawyer, he practiced at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco.

He then spent two years as a visiting assistant professor at Penn State Law School, followed by an assistant to associate professor stint at Peking University School of Transnational Law in China. 

His time in China was an impactful experience for Chertok. He learned much from his short time as a professor abroad.

“The power of the law is that, at its most fundamental levels, it’s universal. I’ve come to notice how, even as the “tangible” forms of the “law shape” shift outwardly, there’s often a deeper “invisible unity.”

Chertok was naturally in tune to the sensitivity and open-minded thinking needed to live overseas, having grown up in a bi-cultural family and studied in France at several points. The “novel environment” of China still presented a challenge. He was initially unsure of how to bridge his culture with theirs, or how to teach students with a mindset rooted in a region with such a unique custom-based and existential landscape.

Fortunately, a bond was quickly forged between the Chinese students and Professor Chertok. He accredits this bond to “people having the same impulse to share in the common side of our humanity – our curiosity for truth, and our desires for goodness.”

Time repeats itself as Chertok begins to form a bond with his new group of students at UF Law.

Earlier this year, Chertok’s wife reminded him of his old feelings about Florida, encouraging him to inquire at UF Law. They hired him almost immediately, and Chertok and his wife moved to Gainesville. In just over a month, he fell in love with the naturally diverse geography and human spirit.

“I had a funny premonition that one day I would work at Florida Law, maybe wishful thinking, after having spent many summers in Delray Beach with my grandparents when I was growing up.”

Chertok always had a feeling that he might end up as a legal academic, even in his college days. As a law student and later a lawyer, Chertok wrote often and dreamt about going back to law school one day.

After teaching, he realized that he loved “the right arm of the legal scholar, teaching,” just as much as he loved “the left, writing.”

He offered a quote from the Talmud, where Rabbi Chanina remarked, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students.”

“This has led to a re-examination of my own thinking and in turn, elevated my teachings,” Chertok said. “So thank you all––the Florida students, several classes of inquisitive students at Penn State and those perky chirpy Chinese students at Peking University STL––for having their eyes open and minds thirsty!”

Penn State’s teaching requirements required him to teach torts, but it evolved into a great area of interest for Chertok, as understanding tort law “externalities” also added ballast to his knowledge of corporate “internalities.”

“I like torts because it’s a great subject for someone with diverse interests. As I teach my students, tort law issues cycle through perspectives of ethics, economics, philosophy, policy, science, etc. After all, it’s a law of “revenge” (just kidding, but only partially)!”

Students learn about the positives of being a professor, but inevitably certain facets of being a law professor are difficult, especially because teaching includes standing up in front of a large group of inquisitive people and intellectualizing for lengthy periods.

What I liked the least about the trek back to legal academia is that I underestimated the challenges of going from a practitioner to a legal academic,” he said.

In his writing, Chertok wanted to find a way to combine his practice skills, with more theoretical academic perspectives on what the law should be. He wanted to honor his lawyerly past, but also be true to his role as a legal scholar.

Chertok is a devoted scholarly writer. Apart from law, he’s interested in history, literature and philosophy. He also expressed that he has a close family life. He and his wife spend a lot of their free time having philosophical discussions.

“I have some level of interest in a variety of activities, hence my greatest enemy is time and energy, since no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to fully embrace everything that I love.”

His wife, an emerging novelist, also relies on Chertok as her muse.

“Apart from captivating her imagination, my law academic career has also given her grounding, so I can fly her in the air, like a kite, in the blue.”

Does he have any advice/tips for law students? “Lots of advice.” Chertok said. “Become a person of “substance” and as the saying goes, “love what you do and do what you love.”

Here is a breakdown of Chertok’s recommendations for law students:

  1. Don’t get caught up in grades and rankings. “People who win big prizes and get the brass ring, in the end, are the ones with the most love in their hearts for what they do, not the ones who fight for the honor only.”
  2. “Never stop building up your knowledge base either.  School is just the onset of your learning. You won’t always have a professor by your side to answer questions and guide you through conundrums, so it’s important to pump enough fuel from your law school community to have a zippy car for your post-school journey!”
  3. “As you build up your knowledge, keep your eyes focused in all directions. Good attorneys are those who can work through “multiple issues” problems, given that most lawyers can understand issues in isolation with relative ease.”

Chertok also shared tips for life after law school:

  1. Zone into people. “Work with those whom you love being around, and who really love being around you.” The idea behind this is that professional relationships work better when there is a real sense of amicability anchoring work ties.
  2. “A cardinal rule of being an attorney is humility. When you start out, find a way to serve your partners, and later, your clients.”
  3. “One of my good friends, who came from an attorney family, told me when I was starting out that, “attorneys must always make constant efforts at self-improvement.” So remember, as hard as law school is, it’s only your beginning.”
  4. “If you can prove yourself as someone who gives [meaning, adding ‘value’] and not just takes, clients will appreciate you. […] But I try to teach lawyers also to want to operate as ‘ethical lawyers,’ leading our clients in a positive direction for themselves and the broader society,” Chertok said. “Part of building a strong society is to grow wealth without trampling over the human spirit. In our land of plenty and home of the brave, I believe that we want to pass on consciousness that is not only practical and efficient, but also knowledge-seeking and justice-driven.”
  5. “Remember that the best solution is to try to wisely solve the client’s problem, before it mushrooms!”
About Katie O'Sullivan 12 Articles
Katie is currently a 1L at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Prior to law school, Katie graduated Magna Cum Laude at the University of South Florida, where she received a Bachelor of Art in Political Science. She is no stranger to writing - she earned her minor in mass communications and spent a year as a writer for an online newspaper in Tampa. In what little spare time a law student has, Katie enjoys reading (anything, but her textbooks) and wasting time on her Xbox.