“He was the guy you wanted to sit next to at dinner because you knew the conversation would never be idle.”
- Professor Tom Galligan, LSU Law
Professor David W. Robertson was considered the foremost expert in maritime law, or, more affectionately, the “Willie Nelson of maritime law.” He is also known for his scholarly work in appellate advocacy and has been cited many times by the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous Appellate Courts throughout the nation. Though his career would take him outside Louisiana, Robertson’s legacy remains at LSU Law.
A member of the Class of 1961, Robertson graduated with honors as a member of the Order of the Coif. As a student at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, he was managing editor of Louisiana Law Review, where he developed excellent research and writing skills that would serve him well into his career. He later obtained his LLM and JSD from Yale Law School.
Robertson received one of the first scholarships ever provided to an LSU Law student. The three-year scholarship established by Standard Oil Company gave him $260 per year and a subsistence allowance of up to $40 per month. He was also awarded the 1960 Greater Washington, DC Alumni Fellowship for a summer internship with Senator Russell B. Long (‘42), whom he would work for after graduation.
Considered one of America’s most productive scholars, Robertson maintained an equally productive and thriving law practice. He practiced law in with the famed Camille Gravel (also an LSU Law alumnus) and later became of counsel with the Baton Rouge firm of Due’ Guidry Piedrahita Andrews. He was a pioneer of maritime law in the Gulf Region, an area of law that was relatively new and unfamiliar to many at the time.
Robertson returned home as an instructor at LSU Law from 1962-1964. In 1966, he joined the faculty of the University of Texas Law School in Austin and became one of its most distinguished professors.
“All of his former students remember a patient mentor who was passionate about his teaching, generous with his time, and committed to seeing his students succeed,” said Texas Law Professor Michael Sturley in an essay dedicated to the memory of Robertson.
Robertson returned to LSU Law as a visiting professor from 1974-75 at the invitation of then-Dean Paul M. Hebert to cover Professor Wex Malone’s classes. The relatively short “visit” created a lifetime of memories for both students and faculty.
Alston Johnson (’70) and Bernard Johnson (’77), brothers and alumni of LSU Law, both experienced Robertson’s distinctive style as a member of the faculty and a student respectively. In an essay the brothers wrote, Bernard recalled Robertson used music to teach, adapting various songs to famous cases so his students could remember them.
As a faculty member, Alston admired the influence Robertson’s academic and professional work wielded.
“Dave was everything one could ask for in a law professor,” says Alston. “His prodigious publication list contained numerous articles that directly influenced Louisiana law and were cited frequently in judicial opinions.”
The Honorable John deGravelles, unfortunately, missed the opportunity to learn from Robertson in the classroom.
“One of my great tragedies was that I did not take his class.”
But Judge deGravelles would have even more unique opportunities to learn from Robertson. He audited a three-week course Robertson taught for Tulane University Law School’s summer program in Greece. Judge deGravelles also worked with and learned from Robertson in several litigation cases like the Deepwater Horizon disaster. According to Judge deGravelles, it was one of the greatest pleasures and honors he had in his career as a lawyer.
Robertson published over 100 articles, which have appeared in publications such as Louisiana Law Review, Texas Law Review, Michigan Law Review, Modern Law Review, Law Quarterly Review, and Tulane Law Review. He was selected for many honors and awards and was admitted to practice in many courts and jurisdictions, including the United States Supreme Court.
“He was incredibly smart. He had a great sense of humor. It was biting but never offensive,” said Tom Galligan, professor at LSU Law. “As someone who admired him, I remember how nice it was when he said I did a good job. I knew he truly meant it.”
Although nationally and internationally acclaimed, Robertson was a rather private person. He did not disclose very much about his personal life. However, not much needed to be said to know he was a “family man” who went through great lengths for those he loved.
“He was what I aspired to be: a brilliant maritime scholar, an inspiring teacher, an outstanding lawyer and a wonderful human being,” said Judge deGravelles.
Professor Robertson died on December 27, 2018.
About Jan deGravelles and The Honorable John deGravelles
In December 2017, Jan deGravelles and the Honorable John W. deGravelles of Baton Rouge, LA made an extraordinary gift of $1,000,000 to the LSU Foundation for the benefit of the Paul M. Hebert Law Center. The deGravelles’ gift is among the largest scholarship gifts ever received by the Law Center. The gift was a blended gift that established two endowed scholarships and two large annual scholarship gifts that are awarded in the name of the honorees. The honorees are both former professors of law who greatly influenced the education and career of Judge deGravelles: Professor David Robertson and Professor Symeon Symeonides.
Judge deGravelles is a two-time graduate of LSU, receiving his Bachelor of Arts in 1971 and his Juris Doctorate in 1974 from the Paul M. Hebert Law Center. He graduated with honors as a member of the Order of the Coif. He was the winner of the Law Center’s Flory Trial Competition and served on the Law Center’s Moot Court Board.
Jan met Judge deGravelles while he was in high school, and they enjoyed the educational experience and comradery formed in those substantive years of his law education. He has been a member of the Law Center’s Board of Trustees for many years, and he and Jan are consistent annual donors to the Law Center’s Dean’s Council.
Following graduation from law school, he became a named partner at Dué, Dodson, deGravelles, Robinson & Caskey in Baton Rouge. Later, he became a partner at deGravelles, Palmintier, Holthaus & Frugé LLP where he handled civil litigation in federal and state courts. Through his time at Dué, Dodson, deGravelles, Robinson & Caskey, Judge deGravelles became acquainted with David Robertson who served of counsel for the firm.
Judge deGravelles recalled one case he worked on with Robertson representing several crawfishermen who were suing an oil company. Canals that were dug in the Atchafalaya basin by the oil companies cut off fresh water supply to the crawfish, negatively affecting the crop. Right before the court hearing, Willie Nelson came through St. Martin parish for a concert and was subsequently (and infamously) arrested. He was to appear in court the same day as the argument for the crawfishermen case. Judge deGravelles and Robertson arrived to a large crowd at the St. Martin parish courtroom. Judge deGravelles assumed the crowd was there to possibly get a glimpse of Willie Nelson in court. “It turns out, all of those people were crawfishermen,” said Judge deGravelles. Sadly, they did not get to see Willie Nelson in court that day. Though Judge deGravelles lovingly refers to Robertson as the “Willie Nelson of maritime law,” as he had the same look and musical stylings of Willie Nelson.
In 2019, five years after President Barack Obama nominated him to serve as a judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, Judge deGravelles found himself serving for a more nostalgic purpose. He was serving on the championship bench for the annual Judge John R. Brown Admiralty Moot Court Competition, a competition established and jointly sponsored by Texas Law that was organized annually by Robertson. It was the first competition after Robertson’s passing. Judge deGravelles presented the David W. Robertson Award for the Most Outstanding Law School in the Competition to none other than the LSU Law School.
Judge deGravelles respected Robertson’s desire to work on “real issues” while practicing academia and appreciated the opportunity to watch Robertson in action.
“He was unfailingly patient with me but uncompromising in his insistence on excellence.”
About the Scholarship:
Recipients of the Robertson Endowed Scholarship must be full-time graduate students or postdoctoral fellows enrolled in the Law Center who have a documented financial need and a history of overcoming disadvantage. It is Donors’ wish that in the interest of promoting diversity in enrollment, preference be given to students who are demographically underrepresented in the Law Center.