By: Tina Cormier

Delivering Modern Legal Insights by Returning to our Roots

"The real beauty that we strive to uncover each day,” explains Ajay K. Mehrotra, PhD’03, “lies in the ability to understand not only what the law says - the legal doctrine that’s in the books - but also what it actually does in practice.

As executive director and a research professor at the American Bar Foundation, an independent, non-profit legal research organization in Chicago, Mehrotra and his colleagues call on their unique combination of legal and social science training to understand the law within the context of culture, the economy, history, and politics.

Mehrotra’s educational and professional journeys readied him for this challenging position at the Foundation, which he began in 2015. Following his undergraduate studies in economics at the University of Michigan, he went to law school at Georgetown University. He spent several years working in the tax field for J.P. Morgan before returning to graduate school for a PhD in history at the University of Chicago.

During law school, he developed specific research interests that landed squarely at the intersection of legal history and tax law, and his time at UChicago helped him bring those interests together. “I was fortunate to study at a place with very porous disciplinary boundaries, where working across departments was not only tolerated, but encouraged,” explains Mehrotra. He recalls the workshop culture in the Division of the Social Sciences as formative and truly interdisciplinary, often run by faculty from more than one department. “This culture allowed me to integrate two seemingly disparate areas in tax law and history and really helped launch my career.”

The real beauty that we strive to uncover each day lies in the ability to understand not only what the law says - the legal doctrine that’s in the books - but also what it actually does in practice.

Mehrotra’s dissertation research was aimed at providing historical context to inform the origins and early development of US progressive taxation. He dove deeply into key historical events, individuals, and groups that created the modern American fiscal state, not only reporting the events, but providing lessons for today’s lawmakers. For example, in examining the hard-fought roots of progressive taxation during the early 20th century in the US, he was struck by the increasingly negative attitude toward taxes in the last few decades. “My book was intended to remind lawmakers and citizens that there was a time when Americans believed in taxation as the lifeblood of the modern state. Taxes were not always frowned upon as a bad thing – if you want a modern society, you have to pay for it,” Mehrotra says.

As part of finishing his degree, he accepted a doctoral fellowship appointment at The American Bar Foundation, the same organization he now leads. He credits the Foundation as another defining force in shaping his career as a young academic. He was drawn to the institution for the same reasons that he excelled at UChicago – it had a rigorous environment of innovation and interdisciplinary research. “It’s really a multidisciplinary place without departments,” says Mehrotra. Under the guidance of what he appreciates as excellent mentors, he wrote his dissertation on American legal history and taxation, which he later turned into a book entitled Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877-1929.

Following his fellowship, he spent 12 years at Indiana University advancing his research and teaching law and history before returning to the American Bar Foundation as its director in 2015. Today, he is focused on “paying it forward” by continuing to improve and strengthen the already established cross-disciplinary culture of the organization through research and mentoring. Already during his tenure thus far, the institution has significantly expanded its doctoral and postdoctoral fellowship program while continuing to be the world leader in innovative, empirical research on the law.