Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Saskia Lettmaier

Earlier this fall we noted that only three of the fifty contributors to Oxford Handbook of European Legal History were women. Knowing that there are numerous women scholars whose voices would enrich a conversation on European Legal History, we have decided to spotlight some of them in a series of posts. As our colleagues at the “Women Also Know History” media platform note, there are “concrete way[s] to address explicit and implicit gender bias in public and professional perceptions of historical expertise.” We hope that this series of interviews will be one of them. (H/t: AHA Member Spotlight series.)

Prof. Dr. Saskia Lettmaier, B.A. (Oxford), LL.M., S.J.D. (Harvard)We begin the series with Saskia Lettmaier,  Professor of Law at Kiel University in Germany. 

Alma Maters: 
  • Oxford University, B.A., 2002
  • Harvard Law School, LL.M., 2003
  • Bamberg University, PhD, 2007
  • Erlangen University, First State Exam in Law, 2009
  • Harvard Law School, S.J.D., 2015
  • Regensburg University, Habilitation, 2016

Fields of Interest: All private law subjects, with a particular emphasis on family and succession law; legal history, with a particular emphasis on the early modern and modern periods in England and Continental Europe; comparative and private international law; law and culture

Career path: I have had a fairly unusual career path. I never planned to be a law professor. And I certainly did not plan every step on the way to becoming one. I was born in Germany, and I completed my secondary school education there. However (perhaps because I was an avid Jane Austen reader during my teenage years), I have always had a strong penchant for the Anglo-American world. This is what first brought me to England to study law at Oxford, and this is what subsequently brought me to Harvard to study an Americanized version of the common law. While an LL.M. student at Harvard, I had the good fortune to enroll in a course on wills and trusts with Charlie Donahue. For my LL.M. paper, I drafted two wills for my grandmother on the alternative hypotheses first that she was a resident of Germany and second that she was a resident of Massachusetts. The main body of my work consisted in comparing the results both from a planner’s and a client’s perspective. This LL.M. drafting exercise fixed my interest in family and succession law as well as my interest in comparative law. And it introduced me to Charlie Donahue, who ended up being my doctoral supervisor and a tremendous mentor long after my LL.M. studies were finished.
What do you like most about where you live and work: Kiel is a city in the north of Germany, and it reminds me a lot of England and also of Boston. People here have a Nordic attitude and a Nordic sense of humor. Plus, Kiel is situated right on the Baltic Sea. I am teaching at a university that recruits its students mainly from the Bundesland (i.e. the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, of which Kiel is the capital city). As a result, university life here has a very earthy, heartfelt atmosphere. Add to that a bunch of very supportive colleagues, always keen on collaborative endeavors, and it’s really heaven on earth.

What projects are you currently working on? My research focuses on the history as well as the contemporary practice of family and succession law. I am equally committed to both. When it comes to contemporary issues, I am trying to devise a more equitable approach to balancing private autonomy and protection for the weaker party in spousal and other in-family contracting. As a legal historian, I tend to explore the history of family law, and in particular the history of marriage law. I generally do so through a comparative perspective, with Germany and England as my main comparators. Right now, I am writing a book chapter on marriage law during the inter-war period in England and Germany.

Have your interests evolved since finishing your studies? I dare say they have become more tailored and more narrowly focused, but the big picture was there early on: my techique is historical-comparative, and my favourite subject matter is the history of family law and the history of wills and trusts.

What’s the most fascinating thing you have ever found while doing your research? My most fascinating find dates from my doctoral research on breach-of-promise actions in 19th-century England. I was investigating a very famous mid-century breach-of-promise case brought by one Mary Smith against a noble individual, and I was anxious to know what became of Miss Smith after the trial (which she resoundingly lost) had ended—no easy task, considering what a common name she had. I was greatly helped by her grandfather’s will (discovered at a record office), which disclosed that she had married one Kosciusko Hyde Kent Newbolt (not a common name by anyone’s standards). From there it was an easy task to trace her to her death in Liverpool.

Is there an article, book, film, or website that you would recommend to LHB readers? I strongly recommend the British Newspaper Library, which offers an extensive collection of British and overseas newspapers in print, on microfilm and as digital copies. Much of the content has recently become available online via the British Newspaper Archive. It’s a treasure trove for externalist legal historians like myself, who like to study law in its social context.

What have you found to be the most surprising thing about academic life? I never thought I would have as much freedom to pick and choose my research topics, and I never thought that I would enjoy it so much.