A Conversation with Zachary Clopton, Professor of Law


Scholarship Faculty
Professor Zachary Clopton

Zachary Clopton joins the Northwestern Law faculty as a professor of law. His research and teaching interests include civil procedure, complex litigation, international business transactions and litigation, and national security law. He previously taught at the University of Chicago Law School and most recently at Cornell Law School.

Prior to teaching, Clopton worked in the national security group at Wilmer Hale in Washington, DC, clerked for the Honorable Diane P. Wood of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois. He earned a BA from Yale University, an MPhil in International Relations from Cambridge University, where he was a Gates Foundation Scholar, and his JD from Harvard Law School.

What brought you back to academia after working in the public and private sectors?

I’ve always liked research, writing, and teaching. The only question for me was whether that was going to be all that I did, or a part of what I did. So, when I was in practice I also took the time to do some adjunct teaching and some legal scholarship. But when I figured out that I could do that as my full-time job, that’s when I made the transition from the U.S. Attorney’s Office into an academic position.

What are the main areas of focus in your research? What are you working on now?

The question that’s most interesting to me is how to think about legal questions when multiple legal systems have some stake in the resolution. So, that could be state and federal. It could be the U.S. and a foreign country. It could even be civil and criminal. A lot of my research looks at the interface between multiple legal systems, and the procedural and jurisdictional rules that need to be in place to kind of adjudicate those potential conflicts to take advantage of the benefits of overlapping systems and to try to minimize some of the costs that can arise.

One major thread of my research has focused on what I call civil enforcement, which is basically the use of civil litigation to further various public policy aims. This comes up commonly in areas like antitrust or securities law, or environmental law or civil rights. What’s interesting about these areas is that you have multiple places where cases can be brought (such as in state or federal court), but also lots of potential people bringing those cases. In many of these areas you could just as easily have a government actor, say the U.S. Department of Justice or a state attorney general, bringing a claim. Or you could have private citizens bringing, essentially, an identical claim on identical facts. So, there we have kind of complexity on multiple levels, both in terms of the court systems, and also the potential legal actors involved.

One other area where I’ve been spending a lot of time recently and I’m very excited about is a process called multidistrict litigation, or MDL for short. Multidistrict litigation is a process in the federal courts to coordinate cases across different federal district courts that otherwise would be proceeding in parallel. MDL brings these cases together for some unified proceedings and perhaps resolution, but still allows each of the cases to retain their own individual character. Unlike a class action that brings together, potentially, thousands or tens of thousands of claims into a single claim, what an MDL does is it keeps each case independent. Each plaintiff can decide whether to settle his or her case or not, but because these cases can involve overlapping or common issues, an MDL tries to bring them together with the hopes of a global resolution, whether that’s a settlement or a court judgment. MDLs have just exploded, at least in terms of the numbers in federal courts. Today, any mass tort is likely to end up in an MDL. The BP oil spill was an MDL. The NFL concussion litigation was an MDL. The opioid litigation that has been  in the news is an MDL. It’s become the way to resolve mass tort cases in federal court today.

What are you most looking forward to about joining Northwestern Law?

I’m very excited about joining both the local community at Northwestern Law School, which includes amazing faculty, administrators, staff, and students, and also the broader Northwestern legal community that includes the alumni network of lawyers and judges doing amazing things in a dynamic legal environment like Chicago. Especially for someone who studies civil procedure and complex civil litigation, there’s really no better place to be than at a law school like Northwestern in a city like Chicago, where a lot of this work is happening in the flesh. Northwestern has a reputation as a place that really values the study of civil litigation and procedure, has world class faculty in those areas, and has produced amazing lawyers who have gone on to be leaders on those topics as well.