Remembering John Bonsignore

The Founder of Legal Studies at UMass: A Memoir and Tribute

By Artie Wolfe



Remembering John Bonsignore


In August of 2010, the world lost a visionary scholar, institution builder, and a natural, gifted teacher, and a great friend. His name is John Bonsignore. In these days, when fame and reputation are associated with power, wealth, outlandish behaviors or the fanciful and ignorant, the humble soul who stakes his life’s work on revolutionizing such basic institutions as law and legal education is not honored or even recognized.

This book is a serious attempt to create a permanent record of John’s scholarship and actions in creating the first institutions devoted to law study that are not dominated by the “law-as-rule-memorization” paradigm prevalent in the late 19th Century.


I wrote this book to honor the professional life of John J. Bonsignore (1935-2011) who created a new view of American law that is interdisciplinary, critical, and humanitarian.  John first used the words “Legal Studies” in 1968 when he described a university undergraduate major that would be independent of law school training and all current undergraduate instruction in law found then primarily in business schools. 

 John, a University of Chicago law graduate, began teaching business law in 1963 and joined the business law faculty at UMass. in 1969 and there (with others) created the first Legal Studies Program in 1973 which evolved into a free standing department of Legal Studies in 1981.  John was a primary author of the first Legal Studies textbook, Before the Law (Houghton Mifflin, 6th ed. now in print), and with his colleagues created the American Legal Studies Association, and was the first editor of the interdisciplinary journal, the Legal Studies Forum.  He also was the sole author of Multinationals and the Law:  An Introduction to Law and Political Economy.  (Prentice Hall, 1994).

Legal Studies at Umass. today has over 240 majors and 10 faculty from different disciplines.  The UMass web site describes over 50 courses in Legal Studies which are offered by faculty from the Legal Studies department itself or by faculty from the colleges of social and behavioral sciences and the humanities.