Helge Dedek is a professor of law at McGill University. https://www.mcgill.ca/law/about/profs/dedek-helge
Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?
No, not at all. I saw myself on an academic career path quite early on, but in the Humanities. I then chose law instead in a conscious attempt to be more ‘practical’, if you will – to make sure that any theoretical leanings do not turn into escapism. It is not without irony that I wound up in academia anyway. Obviously, something drew me to the ivory tower… However, I still feel that I succeeded of in my ambition to be more practical, at least to some degree: even if the research component of the job may take you to quite lofty realms at times (my work focuses on legal history and theory), it is particularly the teaching aspect, and especially the teaching in core areas such as contracts (a course I’ve been teaching regularly in the last years) that keeps me grounded and in touch with the real-life disputes behind the cases. I also really like the fact that my students will go out into the world and make very meaningful contributions, and I enjoy the idea that our interactions may somehow have played a role in these stories.
What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?
I did consider practicing and tried it out for a while. I had a good job as a transactional lawyer, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t take the decision lightly to give up this job. There are always two sides to things: when I made the decision, I already knew that life would be easier if I just stayed the course – but also pretty clearly laid out and, just for me personally, less fulfilling. So I decided to take the leap. I don’t regret having tried it - my stint in practice, no matter how short, has proven to be an invaluable experience, for teaching and research alike. I had the good fortune to work with lawyers who were excellent at their jobs; I have a great deal of respect for – skillful and ethical – practice.
Btw, I don’t think that teaching law in general is ‘lawfully uncommon’ in the sense of an unusual and creative way of putting one’s law degree to use. What made my case possibly a bit more uncommon is that it also involved getting used to a new academic home. My law degrees are from Germany and the US. Legal education is still quite jurisdiction-specific; this can be also felt in legal academia, which is still more ‘localized’ (one could also say: more parochial) than other academic fields. It is therefore still less usual – and maybe in that way ‘lawfully uncommon’ – for a legal academic to go abroad to teach than, say, for a sociologist or a mathematician.
What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?
I found law truly fascinating as an endeavour to create conditions that make peaceful human coexistence possible, against all odds. Elementary, grand, and tragic at the same time – so quintessentially human. Still feel that way.
What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?
The fact that it is easy to lose sight of that; and that it is then all too easy to get caught up in the competitiveness and unpleasantness among students that is, unfortunately, not uncommon in law schools.
Do you still see law all around you?
Absolutely. Reading countless cases focusing exclusively on human interaction somehow gone awry instills you inevitably with an acute sense of there being literally no limit to the variety of ways in which things can go wrong. I find that particularly as a parent, I pretty much always think in worst-case scenarios – a tendency probably common to all new parents, but in my case clearly exacerbated by the terrifying knowledge of too many freakish Torts cases.
You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them?
I have to say that the older I get, the more hesitant I am becoming when it comes to giving life advice… Our experiences are so unique and personal and barely generalizable. Maybe that’s something I would say: try to benefit from advice and shared experiences as much as you can, but don’t let these get in your head and limit yourself somehow, they’re still another person’s experiences, not yours – for it is these kinds of dynamics that, for example, contribute to ‘uncommon’ legal careers often not being considered thoroughly enough. And don’t ever listen to coffee house advice when it’s one of those where they serve booze, period.
What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!
Each day looks different. One of the intriguing aspects about academia is that it is basically a combination of different jobs: teaching is a fairly extroverted activity that brings intense periods of interaction with groups and individuals; while research and writing is fairly withdrawn and requires peace and quiet – periods of ‘scholarly contemplation’, if you will. Then there are administrative duties; this aspect can feel a lot like other office jobs, rushing from one committee meeting to the next and trying to deal with a couple of emails in between, and maybe writing a memo, a recommendation, or a peer review of an article, or getting started on grading a paper. Most of the time, each day brings a bit of each of these components, with an alternating emphasis on teaching, reading, and writing (and the constant of a ceaseless, never-ending stream of emails – don’t imagine Sisyphus happy).
If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
What is that quote again: ‘Time expands, then contracts, all in tune with the stirrings of the heart’? So probably just more of the same. Sadly – or not!
Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that)
Yeah, I’m not!!!