As a boy growing up in Mississippi, Joe Cook often spent afternoons taking speech courses where he read and memorized poetry and performed plays. It was a way to pass the time, a way to do something fun. But it was also the beginning of something big. These courses sparked a passion for inquiry and performance, and he began honing his public speaking and debate skills—laying the groundwork for what would become a lifelong career in law.
Now, after 51 years of award-winning teaching and scholarship and the launch of a nationally recognized moot court program, the career of the longest-serving professor in UT Law history is coming to a close.
Well, sort of.
Committed to UT Law
Cook’s elementary school extracurricular activities led him to the high school debate team where he realized he had a “facility for public speaking.” Following high school, Cook sought to become involved in the top debate team in the country at the University of Alabama, home to two-time national champs and the nation’s best coach.
The experience did not disappoint. The group was top-ranked during Cook’s senior year, and upon graduating he was selected to be part of a two-person team to tour the British Isles and compete at universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Cook’s debate participation abroad required a semester of law school, so while he was at it, he went on to earn a juris doctorate at Alabama and a master’s degree in legal studies at Yale University.
It was expected he’d go practice law with his father in Mississippi, but Cook wanted to be a part of the academic community. In 1965, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Tennessee—beginning what, unbeknownst to him, would be the start of a lifelong commitment to UT Law.
Committed in the classroom
Teaching courses in areas like contract law and constitutional legal rights, Cook became known for challenging his students with tough questions to help them develop the encyclopedia of knowledge needed to be a good lawyer.
“Lawyers have to be nimble to get up to speed on the subject area of the problem they are dealing with,” Cook says. “That sort of dimension of teaching means that one would be continually learning new areas, subjects, and problems.”
This strategy has proven instrumental in the success of former student and moot court member Louann Smith’s (’83) career as a transactional lawyer. In fact, she says she uses what she learned from Cook daily in her practice.
“His most effective teaching tool was to ask us one difficult question after another, to listen, and never to give us the answer,” she says. “[He] taught me how to think about legal problems.”
While Cook’s teaching has constantly had to evolve with the law, the students he’s taught over the years have continually changed, too.
[pullquote-left]”Teaching has been and always will be first and foremost for Joe. He stands as an example that one could be both an outstanding teacher and scholar.”[/pullquote-left]
During the first few years of his career, most of Cook’s students were white males. Over time, more and more female students and students from different races, cultures, and backgrounds began entering his classroom. Cook says the changing face of the student body has positively impacted the learning experience. “It has allowed students to be cognizant of a wider range of perspectives and experiences. There’s a greater sense of inclusiveness in the way questions are addressed and dealt with,” he says.
Cook’s commitment to teaching has earned him numerous awards, including the L.R. Hesler Award for Excellence in Teaching and Service, the Harold C. Warner Outstanding Teacher Award (twice), and the UT Alumni Outstanding Teacher Award. Cook was also the 2004–2005 UT Macebearer, the highest honor the university bestows upon a faculty member.
Cook’s close friend and colleague, Professor Emeritus John Sobieski, who co-led the moot court team and also co-authored a biannually updated, multi-volume treatise with Cook, says these honors are most deserved.
“Teaching has been and always will be first and foremost for Joe,” says Sobieski. “He stands as an example that one could be both an outstanding teacher and scholar.”
Committed to the court
Cook has also twice earned the Forrest W. Lacey Award for his commitment to students beyond the classroom.
Soon after arriving at UT, Cook’s storied reputation as a great debater likely prompted a senior faculty member to ask him to launch UT Law’s National Moot Court team. It took several years to build the program, but through the hard work and diligence of Cook and the selected third-year law students, the team would become a victorious and prestigious one.
“Our rigorous preparation has been our secret to success,” says Cook, who explains that the team’s daily practices include oral arguments for the month leading up to the national competition, with different panels comprised of faculty members and practitioners.
“The theory was that we wanted them to get the toughest benches at home so nothing would surprise them in the competition,” explains Cook. The theory has been validated with multiple successes, including two first-place finishes and one second-place finish.
“Joe was a remarkably patient coach and mentor,” says Kate Stephenson (’88), whose team made it to the national quarterfinals. “He taught me the value of friendships forged in the intensity of moot court, the secrets of inexpensive travel in style, and the delight of his sophisticated, usually covert, sense of humor.”
The real-life experience has driven dozens of former students like Stephenson to excellence through the development of skills highly valued by law firms, such as persuasive writing, research, and oral advocacy. The moot court has also built lifetime friendships.
“Students have said that despite the commitment being demanding and time-consuming, there is nothing more valuable. Even if they lose, it is worth it,” says Cook. “And they have fun traveling and building a camaraderie through hard work.”
Committed to the law
After almost half a century working with moot court students, Cook wrapped up his last coaching season earlier this year. But he wasn’t sad or sentimental about it.
A clue why may lie in his office.
A peek into Cook’s workspace reveals there is still work to be done. His desk and chairs are overflowing with unwrapped books full of cases ready to be analyzed and shared.
Indeed, he says he plans to continue to play some role in moot court this year. He also says he plans to continue his award-winning scholarship until his “publisher doesn’t want him to anymore.” Cook is the author or co-author of two multi-volume treatises: Constitutional Rights of the Accused and Civil Rights Actions and Casebooks in Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure.
But ask Cook whether or not he is really ready to retire, and that’s not up for debate.
“It’s time,” he says. “It’s time.”