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'Accidental professor': Eck to receive Jameson Award at 2023 Annual Meeting

In 1981, Ed Eck received a call from Jack Mudd, the dean of the University of Montana School of Law school at the time and Eck’s former law school classmate, asking if Eck would fill in to teach tax classes for a professor who was leaving for a yearlong fellowship. 
Teaching was the last thing Eck had ever envisioned himself doing. But the offer reminded him of the words of a professor he had at Georgetown University Law Center when he was working on his LLM. The professor told his class that if they ever got the chance to teach, they should do it. After some trepidation, he accepted Mudd’s offer. 
The decision proved to be a fateful one – for both Eck and the law school. Professor Martin Burke’s one-year fellowship turned into two years, as did Eck’s time filling in for him at the law school. When Burke returned, Eck stayed on as a full-time professor. He remained for over 30 years, retiring in 2013. That included a 14-year tenure as dean, during which he steered the school through what could have been a catastrophic time when it faced the possibility of losing its ABA accreditation over deficiencies in its facilities.
Eck is the winner of the State Bar of Montana’s 2023 William J. Jameson Award. He said the award was the highlight of his career.  
“I was humbled, and I still am,” Eck said of his reaction upon being informed of winning the award. 
As impactful as Eck’s time at the law school was, lasting from 1981-2013, it would only be the first act in a remarkable legal career. So far, “retirement” has consisted of a series of positions that each would be considered among the career highlights for many, including:

  • Member of the Internal Revenue Service Oversight Board and Chair of its Operations Support Committee (2008-2013), an appointment from President George W. Bush requiring confirmation by the U.S. Senate;
  • Montana Health Care Foundation Interim Trustee, appointed by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox to the newly created foundation;
  • Chief of the Montana Department of Justice’s Office of Consumer Protection (2014-2017);
  • Montana Mental Health Trust’s Trust Director;
  • Commissioner on the Montana Uniform Trust Commission.

And over a decade after his “retirement,” Eck continues to contribute in many ways to the good of profession, the legal system, and the public. He remains active in the Uniform Trust Commission, on which he has served since 1985 when Montana had no trust code – only a few statutes here and there that Eck said were incomplete and often inconsistent. And this fall, he is once again teaching at the law school something he has done several other times since retirement, teaching Tax Exempt Organizations. It’s safe to say  Eck has remained active in retirement.
“Retirement bored me,” he said. “I did not enjoy it. I can sit around a little bit for a little while, but I have the opportunity to try to do more.”
Eck was nominated for the Jameson Award by Missoula lawyer Dirk A. Williams, who incidentally was chosen as this year’s George L. Bousliman Professionalism Award winner (see related story). Williams said that Eck’s highly public achievements standing alone would qualify any lawyer’s career as distinguished, but his qualifications for the Jameson “rise to the level of overwhelming” when taking his lesser-known contributions into account. And on a personal level, Williams said Eck changed the trajectory of his career when he approached him about joining a State Bar of Montana committee.
“Ed saw something in me that I didn’t think anybody else did,” Williams said. “When I entered the practice of law, billable hour requirements, and feelings of inadequacy, to be asked and given the permission to get involved was a game changer. I discovered I was making connections broad and deep. Many of them have become valued colleagues. Even if they don’t practice in the same area as you, you can learn a lot from people.
“I have worked with Ed a great deal throughout my career,” Williams continued. “He is one of the most passionate people I know in the area of dedication to the improvement of the practice of law. He could have made millions in private practice. He chose to give his life and his career. He’s still giving every day to the improvement of the practice of law.”
Those who supported Eck’s nomination include his colleagues at the law school and lawyers who have served with him on boards and committees over the years, many of whom also had him as a professor when they were in law school.
One of these was Billings lawyer Peter Habein, who saw firsthand how Eck jumped into action when the school was in trouble.
“Ed set about to rescue the school, engaging architects and engineers, poring over minute details of classroom design and architectural integration into the greater campus setting,” Habein wrote in his letter of support. “He campaigned in the legislature, begged for contributions from the bar membership, navigated the byzantine paths of university decision-making, and finally succeeded brilliantly both in opening a new, grand law school building and in preparing the small but over-achieving institution for its future.”
In his letter supporting the nomination, Professor Burke noted that Eck had many other contributions as dean, including strengthening the curriculum emphasis on integration of practice skills and theory; creating a joint JD/MBA program and new certificate programs in environmental law  and dispute resolution; and developing a continuing legal education program for attorneys in rural areas of Montana. 
Others to write letters supporting Eck’s nomination are: former Professor Margaret A. “Peggy” Tonon; Klaus Sitte, retired adjunct faculty at the law school; Jacqueline Lenmark, of Jackson, Murdo & Grant in Helena; Brand Boyar, former chair of the State Bar’s Business, Estates, Trusts, Tax and Real Property Law Section; and Robert Carlson of Missoula, past president the American Bar Association and past president of the State Bar of Montana. 
For his part, Eck is humble about his accomplishments as dean. He cites his predecessors, Robert Sullivan and Jack Mudd, for their vision in developing a practical curriculum, saying he views them as the real innovators.   
Similarly, he says that credit for national recognition the law school has received in recent years is better directed to those who succeeded him — current Dean Elaine Gagliardi and her predecessor, Paul Kirgis — rather than to himself.
But even though he quips that his law school classmates probably would have voted him “least likely to be a law school dean,” he is glad he listened to the advice of his professor at Georgetown. 
“My professor was right. You do learn more when you teach.”