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Law Prof. Sander, Legal Pioneer and Lover of Food, Dies at 90

Harvard Law School Library.
Harvard Law School Library. By Amy Y. Li
By Sofia W. Tong, Crimson Staff Writer

Busy penning holiday cards in 1975 at his home in Cambridge, Law School Professor Frank E. A. Sander ’48 started in surprise: He had received a telegram from Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.

The Chief Justice had telegramed to say he was impressed with Sander’s newly circulating ideas about alternative dispute resolution. In the coming months, Sander would pioneer this form of dispute resolution as an entirely new method of legal mediation.

Sander, the Bussey Professor Emeritus at the Law School, died on Feb. 25. He was 90.

At the Law School, Sander taught taxation and family law until the seventies, when his career took a turn. While in Sweden on sabbatical, Sander noticed that disputes in labor arbitration were often resolved inexpensively and effectively, whereas family law disputes often ended poorly and antagonistically.

From this observation, Sander eventually formed the concept of alternative dispute resolution, proposing a “multi-door courthouse” where a court official would determine the best resolution process to fit the nature of the dispute.

What Sander initially saw as mere “musings” about Swedish court proceedings ultimately became common practice in community law organizations around the country through the work of federal judge and attorney general Griffin B. Bell.

Harvard law lecturer David A. Hoffman credited Sander with almost single-handedly creating field of dispute resolution.

“It’s surprising now to think about the fact that negotiation was not widely taught in the years that he spent in the Law School,” Hoffman said. “It represents a very big change in the legal culture and the legal curriculum that negotiation is now considered a vitally important part of a legal education.”

In addition to a professorial career that spanned more than 40 years, Sander served as the Law School’s associate dean for 13 years. He also founded the Harvard Clinical Mediation Program and other programs meant to involve law students in the field.

“I think he loved the fact that he could reinvent his career,” Sander’s son, Thomas H. Sander, said. “He just had a lot of curiosity and he just thought he could learn more from new experiences than doing the same thing over and over again."

In the early 1950s, Sander served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. During his time under Frankfurter, the court heard the famous case Brown v. Board of Education. Sander always dedicated himself to the goal of making education accessible to everyone, Thomas Sander said.

In 1965 and 1966, Sander launched a summer program that allowed 40 African-American college students to come to the Law School to learn about careers in law. The program ultimately provided the model for the Council on Legal Education Opportunity, a national organization aimed at expanding law school opportunities for students of color and low-income students. Sander served on the board of CLEO for its first two years.

“He was very egalitarian,” Thomas Sander said. “I don’t think he believed there was anyone who was above or beneath him. He really humanized Harvard Law School and he made it a more friendly place. He made it a place where it was more welcoming, where it was more mentoring.”

Sander didn’t hog his ideas, Thomas said, but loved to co-author books and was always happy to collaborate and share his theories with others. He was as eager to chat with students and colleagues as he was to catch up on weekend sports with a mailroom employee or a stewardess on a plane.

Sander was someone who carved time out for his students, whether they needed five minutes or an hour, former law student Michael L. Moffitt said.

“A lot of people describe him like their grandfather,” Moffitt said. “And the thing with that is, I bet not so many of us actually have a grandfather like Frank Sander. We wish we had a grandfather like Frank Sander.”

Moffitt said he named his daughter Sander because Sander had been such an influential mentor in his life.

“He was gentle and persistent, he was creative and stubborn, he was kind, he was so many things I would associate with a life well-lived,” Moffitt said. “What parent doesn’t want a life well lived for his or her child?”

Many also remembered Sanders for his ability to work well with a wide variety of people.

“In spite of his many far-reaching accomplishments, there was nothing self-aggrandizing about him. Quite the opposite, he was really notable for his humility and also his wit,” Hoffman said. “He was a team player in the best sense of the word, and really rejoiced in the success of the people that he helped.”

Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1927, Sander escaped to Boston after Kristallnacht when he was 11 years old, and enrolled at Harvard in 1944. Sander initially considered studying for a Ph.D. in mathematics after concentrating in math, but his sister Dora suggested he try law. On a whim, Sander applied to the Law School, later graduating in 1952.

Thomas Sander said his father’s diverse interests manifested themselves in a multidisciplinary approach to his work. For example, Thomas said his mother’s job as a psychiatric social worker at Mass. General Hospital prompted his father to incorporate many social science concepts into one of his textbooks in order to better equip lawyers to deal with real world problems.

Sander was a lover of music, playing flute as president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and piccolo in the U.S. Army Band during a year spent at West Point.

Law Professor Martha L. Minow, who played violin and piano with Sander in chamber music events he organized, said Sander’s talents as a musician helped define who he was as a professor.

“To play chamber music, you play alongside other people,” Minow said. “You pay close attention to where others are, and when you do, you can actually make something better than what you could do by yourself.”

Sander loved food—he even printed a homemade restaurant guide called “Frank’s Selected Guide to Good Eats,” which he distributed to students and colleagues in something akin to an early version of Yelp. Sander not only hunted for interesting new culinary experiences, but also sought to share them with others, Thomas Sander said.

Thomas Sander recalled the time his sister brought home bread from a Baltic bakery in Chicago. His father loved the bread so much he began collecting requests from his colleagues, friends, and students and distributing mail-ordered loaves monthly.

Minow said Sander had an unparalleled commitment to creating a sense of community.

“This is not a typical thing for a law professor to do,” Minow said.

Sander is survived by his daughter Alison, two sons, Thomas and Ernest, and four grandchildren. A memorial will be held for Sander at Harvard in the fall.

“The Quakers have a saying, ‘Let your life speak,’ and I think my dad was someone who, in a very quiet way, did speak,” Thomas Sander said.

— Staff writer Sofia W. Tong can be reached at

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