Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Scholar Spotlight: Catharine MacMillan

Today's Scholar Spotlight features Catharine MacMillan, King's College London. We noted earlier in this series that only three of the fifty contributors to the recently published Oxford Handbook of European Legal History were women. Like Women Also Know History, this interview series aims to showcase female scholars and their work. Its special focus is scholars of European legal history. 

Catharine MacMillan is a Professor of Private Law at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London. She lives in London, England.

Alma maters: BA (History, University of Victoria), LLB (Queen’s University, Canada, LLM (University of Cambridge)

Fields of interest: intellectual and doctrinal legal history, legal biography, legal history of the British Empire, English contract law

Describe your career path.  What led you to where you are today?: A fortunate stroke of serendipity took me to legal academia.  From early childhood I had wanted to be a lawyer. When I graduated from high school in Canada, I chose history as my first degree subject at the University of Victoria.  History as a subject was all-encompassing, in my view, and thus ideal for a curious teenager.  This was followed by law at Queen’s University.  I returned to my home province and clerked for the Chief Justice of British Columbia, completed my articles at Davis and Company in Vancouver and was duly called to the Bar of British Columbia.  I then had an opportunity to undertake an LLM at the University of Cambridge (Gonville and Caius College); having received my degree I returned to my firm and a practice in commercial litigation.  It did not last for long as family reasons brought me back to England.  In London I took up what began as a short term position in the law school at Queen Mary University of London.  I discovered a love of academic life and spent over two decades at Queen Mary before taking up a position at the University of Reading as a Professor of Law and Legal History.  I came to the Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London in 2016.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?  I love living in London – every day is different.  The Dickson Poon School of Law is at Somerset House on the Strand, right in the very heart of London  It is a wonderful place to examine the richness, diversity and complexity of the human condition.  And there are the added benefits of libraries, museums, galleries, theatre, and music all within an easy walk.   To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, one never tires of its attractions.

What projects are you currently working on?  I have two large projects that I have been working on. The first is a legal biography of the life of Judah Benjamin, one-time Louisiana senator, Confederate Secretary of State and ultimately, a leading QC in London.  I am curious not only about Benjamin’s life but the unique contributions he brought to legal development.  The second is a consideration of the functioning of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as an imperial court.  I also have a number of smaller, discrete projects which are ongoing.  At present these include examinations of the contractual doctrines of frustration, and of mistake and on modern non-disclosure agreements.

How have your interests evolved since finishing your studies? Because my studies were directed at becoming a practising lawyer in one sense my interests have changed enormously.  In another sense they have not changed at all.  I took the view early in law school that legal materials, institutions and actors were fragments from which an historical explanation of the law could be created.  An academic career allows me to gather together these fragments and to try to construct explanations.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives? This is a really hard question to answer.  The document that I have found that has probably had the most profound impact upon me was one I found accidentally in the search for something else: a contract by which an enslaved person was sold by one party to another.  It brought home to me something of the painful and brutal reality of slavery. 

Is there an article, book, film, website, etc. that you would recommend to LHB readers?  I recommend Garrow’s Law, a legal period drama based loosely around the eighteenth century barrister, William Garrow.  It draws neatly upon various legal history sources to bring the subject matter alive for students (and other viewers!).

What have you found to be the most surprising thing about academic life? I have been amazed by all of the wonderful and engaging people I’ve met from around the world.

Photo caption: Catharine MacMillan at Judah Benjamin's grave in Paris.