Joseph's grandparents, Lebanese Maronite and Syrian Melkite Eastern Catholics, were among the first Arab Americans to emigrate to Detroit, where both Joseph's parents were born. He attended the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, the University of Michigan (B.A, 1970), Magdalene College, Cambridge University (B..A 1972, M.A. 1976), and the University of Michigan Law School (J. D. 1975).
Joseph, perhaps best known as a poet, won the 1983 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the Pitt Poetry Series for his first book, Shouting at No One. His second book of poems, Curriculum Vitae, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1988. His most recent books of poems, Before Our Eyes (1993); Codes, Precepts, Biases, and Taboos: Poems 1973-1993 (2005) and Into It (2005), are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Joseph is also the author of Lawyerland, a book of prose, published by FSG in 1997. Lawyerland has been optioned for a film by John Malkovich, Lianne Helfon and Russell Smith's Mr. Mudd Productions. The film will be written and directed by John Walter (How To Draw a Bunny). A symposium, “The Lawyerland Essays”, appeared in the Columbia Law Review.
Joseph's essays and criticism have appeared in magazines and newspapers, and in collections of essays, both in the United States and internationally. His essay on Motown music and Rhythm and Blues, "The Music Is," which originally appeared in Tin House, was included in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003, chosen by Guest Editor Matt Groening.
Joseph is also the Tinnelly Professor of Law at St. John's University School of Law in New York City. Joseph served as law clerk to Justice G. Mennen Williams of the Michigan Supreme Court. He then joined the faculty at the University of Detroit School of Law. In 1981, he moved to New York City, where he was associated with the firm of Shearman & Sterling. Professor Joseph joined the St. John's law faculty in 1987.
Writing as a lawyer, Joseph has published in areas of labor, employment, tort and compensation law, jurisprudence, law and literature, and legal theory. He has served as Consultant on Tort and Compensation Law for the Michigan State Senate’s Commission on Courts, and as Consultant for the Governor of Michigan’s Commission on Workers’ Compensation, Occupational Disease and Employment.
He has lectured at law schools throughout the country, including Stanford University, Columbia University, Harvard University, University of Michigan, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University, and is former Chairperson of the Association of American Law Schools section on Law and Interpretation.
Among his awards are a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a grant from the Employment Standards Division of the United States Department of Labor. In 2006 he was named the third recipient of the New York County Lawyers Association’s “Law and Literature Award” (prior recipients are Louis Auchincloss and Louis Begley). As an undergraduate at Michigan, he received a major Hopwood Award in poetry.
He has been a member of the board of directors of Poets House, Poetry Society of America, and The Writer's Voice, and served on the International PEN Events Committee.
In 1989 he lectured on law and on poetry in Jordan, Israel, and Egypt through the cultural affairs offices of the United States embassies in each country. In 1994, he taught in the Council of the Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
Joseph is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the American Bar Association. He is married to the painter Nancy Van Goethem and lives in downtown Manhattan.