SLN Interview: Professor Hector MacQueen
Generations of students have been inducted into the study of law with Professor MacQueen’s lectures and writings. One of the most popular figures in legal academia, he is admired by his colleagues and held in great affection by his students. Ahead of his retirement next month he talks to Margaret Taylor about a 42-year career at Edinburgh University and his post-retirement plans.
When Professor Hector MacQueen retires from his role at Edinburgh Law School next month it will bring an end to an academic career at the institution that has lasted over 40 years. Though he did spend a brief period working for law firm Morton Fraser & Milligan (now Morton Fraser), Professor MacQueen’s strong interest in legal history meant academia always had a particular appeal. During his doctoral studies he was offered a lectureship at the university and has remained there ever since.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” he says. “I had very congenial colleagues, was doing interesting work and the students were very receptive.”
In some ways, things have changed hugely in the 42 years since Professor MacQueen started out. Now, for instance, it is taken as a given that technology will play a role in every lecture and seminar, when back in 1979 he says “the big revolution” was using handouts.
The demographics of the students Professor MacQueen teaches have also changed, thanks in part to the efforts Edinburgh Law School has made to improve access to the profession, particularly to students that might not traditionally have considered law as an option. As part of that the school introduced a widening-access programme that views exam results in the context of background.
“The best thing to say is that we don’t notice it in the students we are dealing with,” Professor MacQueen says. “If there’s a gap in educational attainment it’s made up very quickly in the first year. A student’s background doesn’t matter if they have the right mindset and the ability to think in a logical fashion. Some people do extraordinarily well and then you discover that they didn’t go to an elite school, they are simply smart people. There’s a definite levelling up.
“Sometimes there’s a sense that those who have done well at good schools have had it easy and that they struggle a bit with having to do it on their own. The students who are not from that background work extremely hard.”
Another change in the make-up of the student body is that when Professor MacQueen started out practically everyone was Scottish, whereas now a large proportion come from the rest of the UK, the EU, North America and, at the masters level in particular, China.
“The chat at the end of a lecture is in a huge variety of languages now,” he says. “There’s a strong sense students are in an international group and not just continuing their school days with a bunch of people who look the same as them. That started to happen in the mid-1980s and has kept growing. It’s fabulous.”
In other ways, not much has changed at all, though. Take the representation of women in the profession. Professor MacQueen says that even when he was starting out as a lecturer women made up more than half the intake of law students but were not well represented at the top end of the profession. Now, women make up an even greater share of law students but, despite significant progress being made in recent years, are still under-represented in areas such as private practice partnerships.
“We went past 50 per cent women back in the early 1980s,” Professor MacQueen recalls. “There were always quite a lot of women - I noticed it as a student because I’d been at an all-boys school - but by the end of the 1990s it was 70 per cent women and 30 per cent men in the intake. That’s one of the reasons why the current situation of women at the top end of the profession is so dispiriting.”
As director of the university’s Centre for Private Law and a former Dean of the Law School, Professor MacQueen’s research interests are wide reaching, encompassing intellectual property, media law and contract law. It is the latter he is perhaps best known for, having co-authored the seminal text Contract Law in Scotland, a book all first year students become acquainted with. Teaching remains one of Professor MacQueen’s favourite parts of the job. Although Covid-19 forced lectures and tutorials to move online, it did not dampen his enjoyment.
“About 15 years ago we started recording lectures so there’s quite a bank of recordings and I held a weekly tutorial for any updating,” he says. “Doing tutorials remotely was fun. The students who came did so voluntarily and there was only a point in coming if you had something to say so they were quite lively. It was enjoyable, I found it well worthwhile and, because there wasn’t a huge number of students, I could get to know them personally.”
In some ways the pandemic year has not been hugely disruptive to Professor MacQueen’s work as he took 2020/21 as a sabbatical in order to complete a number of research projects before he officially enters retirement in June. One is a book he has been working on with historian Alan Borthwick, head of Medieval records at the National Records of Scotland, that uses the murder of the 8th Earl of Douglas by King James II to investigate how the law has been applied to royalty. Another is the next edition of Gloag and Henderson: The Law of Scotland, a key legal text first produced in 1927 that Professor MacQueen has edited alongside retired Inner House judge Lord Eassie for the past 20 years.
“We’ve made quite a lot of changes to it as it was in need of a bit of modernisation,” he says. “The property law section still smacked of the way it had been approached in 1927. It’s very difficult with new editions to decide whether to preserve the sacred word or whether you should seek to rewrite it. Because of major changes to property law that began in 2000 with the abolition of the feudal system that really needed to be updated. Areas like company law and bankruptcy law have seen pretty radical change in the past 20 years.”
As well as writing about changes to the law Professor MacQueen was also involved in bringing about those changes, having served on the Scottish Law Commission between 2009 and 2018. Getting to grips with the legislative process was, he says, a steep learning curve, while bringing about changes was harder than he had expected at the outset.
“I’m not sure how good I was at going out and finding out what people – the stakeholders – thought was a problem and trying to work out the solutions,” he says. “I was conscious that I was spending most of my time talking to lawyers when, actually, it’s not just them who are affected. Quite a lot of people I approached in businesses said they didn’t know anything about it and just referred matters to their in-house lawyers or external solicitors. Trying to persuade people outside the legal world to talk to us was quite challenging. These are difficulties I hadn’t really thought about or engaged with before.”
Two of the rule changes Professor MacQueen’s suggested to the Commission went on to be implemented: a review of contract law to take account of third-party rights and the Legal Writings Act. Others he put forward proved less popular.
“I was quite keen to propose a rule on transferred loss, where the loss in a contract between two parties falls on a third party,” he explains. “The stakeholders said they took care of that in contracts by writing things in, but there are situations where the loss can’t be anticipated. I was disappointed because I thought the solution I came up with was quite clever, but you have to get used to the disappointment - you can’t recommend things in the teeth of opposition and indifference.”
During his time at the Commission, Professor MacQueen temporarily stepped aside from his role at the university but continued teaching contract law to first-years. Despite preparing to formally retire in a month’s time, he is not ready to relinquish that aspect of the job just yet.
“I’ll be at retirement age in June and I will retire but I’m going to carry on doing some teaching - I’ll do my first year course in contract law and a couple of honours courses,” he says. “I’ll give them teaching for free as an emeritus professor and they will give me access to their research resources. In some ways I’ll be continuing where I’ve been, carrying on with various research projects I’ve had in mind for some time, but I’m also going to assist with looking after my grandchildren.”