Craig Ehrlich’s first teaching job was on an Army base in South Korea. A lawyer by trade, he taught “A Survey of Business Law” to service members on the side mainly so he could gain access to the pristine U.S. base with its green landscaping, golf course, and fast-food restaurants. Located outside the densely populated city of Seoul, where Ehrlich lived with his wife and daughter, the base “was a bit of home,” says the associate professor of law.
As a bonus, Ehrlich discovered that he loves teaching. “This is fun,” he thought of his classes with the service members. For the first time in his life, he knew how he wanted to earn a living. Become a professor.
Ehrlich never liked being a lawyer. He studied psychology and linguistics as an undergrad at the University of Illinois, but upon graduating felt like he had no employable skills. People suggested he continue at the university and go to law school, presenting the idea as if he would have many career choices with such a degree. “Which, by the way, is nonsense,” he says. “It leads to the practice of law.”
Three of the most unhappy years of his life is how Ehrlich describes law school. As somewhat of a lost soul who was there because he wasn’t sure what else to do, he found that the super competitive law school environment didn’t suit him. But he persevered and even landed an internship that turned into a job at a boutique firm in Chicago specializing in an unusual and rare branch of law called chancery. There’s no jury, Ehrlich says. People go to court looking for the judge to order an act be performed, such as imposing an injunction or dissolving a partnership. “It was pure litigation,” he says. “Nonstop fighting it out in court in commercial and corporate disputes.”
Ehrlich describes the lawyers he worked with as brilliant. They also were remarkably aggressive. “I’m just not,” he says. Although he learned much and did his job well, he wanted out. “I hated every single minute of it,” Ehrlich says. “I used to go home with migraine headaches every night. What am I doing? I’m a hippie. I’m not a fighter. I spent enough of my youth getting beat up by the next-door neighbor’s kid. Did I really want to be in combat every day? No. But there I was.”
Searching for a better way to use his degree, Ehrlich moved with his wife to South Korea after visiting the country on their first wedding anniversary. An orphan from South Korea, she was brought to America as a teenager. The two had met in Chicago and married. “I thought I’d like to see where she came from,” says Ehrlich of why they took that initial trip. During the visit, he met another American lawyer working in Seoul who talked about four South Korean firms that handled most of the international business. To help with Western clients, those firms hired U.S. lawyers. Ehrlich sent his resume to all four and soon was on his way overseas.
Initially, the transition to a new culture was exciting and the job interesting, as Ehrlich worked on deals brokered with some of the top lawyers in the U.S. He worked with Fortune 500 companies, European and Japanese companies, and foreign embassies. The most exciting cases he can’t talk about due to confidentiality, but, he says, “The criminal stuff was fantastic.”
Eventually, though, the excitement of working overseas wore off and Ehrlich longed to return to the U.S. “After a while it just got monotonous,” he says. “I wanted to come back home to a place that seemed familiar.” With a daughter now to look after, he and his wife also wanted to raise their child in a more diverse culture.
Having discovered a passion for teaching through his work on the American base, Ehrlich set out to land a job as a professor of law, applying to colleges and universities all over the U.S. Babson responded, Ehrlich interviewed, and soon after he was offered the job. The year was 1996, and he has been teaching here ever since.
In addition to teaching “Business Law,” Ehrlich designed two other courses that he teaches, “Building Contracts for New Ventures” and “White Collar and Corporate Crime.” His courses help students understand some basic facts about how the world works, says Ehrlich, so people won’t be able to take advantage of them. In the contracts course, he asks, “Can you stand on your own two feet and not let people cheat you or force a bad deal down your throat?” His course on crime aims to help students avoid legal trouble. “We live in an increasingly criminalized legal environment,” he says. “There are more crimes on the books today than ever. It’s easier than ever to go to prison.” Ignorance of the law, he says, is not a legal defense.
Studying law also teaches students how to read and interpret difficult text, says Ehrlich. “Fewer people actually sit and read quietly and at length,” he says. “They’re good at skimming, if they do anything. So number one—can you read something that is dense, where every word counts?” Then can students translate their thoughts into clear prose. Honing these skills will serve them well, he believes.
Despite the seemingly weighty topics that Ehrlich addresses, he still says teaching is “absolutely fun.” He admires the inquisitiveness of the students. “They’ve got a million questions, and they’re really good questions,” he says. “I’ve been reading law now for about 40 years, and how come I never thought of that one? What a good question. Still happens that way.”
Even when Ehrlich’s day has not gone so well, the classroom lifts his spirits. “The students listen. They laugh at my jokes,” he says. “Seriously, what more could you want?”