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“Law is not neutral, but embedded in society”

“Law is not neutral, but embedded in society”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Hildegard Schneider inspired by Bernhard Groβfeld

Whenever she has to give an important lecture, Professor Hildegard Schneider, dean of the law faculty, thinks of the lessons she learned from Professor Bernhard Groβfeld. “He’d always say, no matter how experienced you are, be sure to practice an important lecture in advance. Keep your eye on the time: 45 minutes is 45 minutes. And a sentence should never be longer than one breath; he was in favour of short sentences, of getting to the point. You had to make your presentations as lively as possibly, preferably without notes. Reading from notes was most certainly out of the question. And if you say the word ‘finally’, don’t follow it with more than two or three sentences. Otherwise you’ll lose the listeners’ attention.”

Schneider met Groβfeld, a law professor, in Münster, where she was preparing for the state examination in law. “His lectures and seminars were fascinating. It didn’t matter whether it was about international trade law, tax law, private law, comparative law, corporate law, family law – his style was so vivid and he gave such good examples that I still remember them today, 35 years later. Once he was talking about the legal constructions people come up with to manage their estate when they die. In England – in the seventeenth century, I think it was – someone put their assets in a trust fund that would be released to a male heir only two or three hundred years later. The Bank of England calculated that the fund could then be a hundred times richer then the bank, and much too powerful. So the rules were changed: a trust fund can now die too.”

Groβfeld showed his students that the law “is not neutral, but embedded in society and can’t be seen as independent of it. Not infrequently has it been used as a means to score political points, and it still is; just look at tax law or asylum law. He was always looking across borders. Private international law and comparative law were still special courses in those days.” He had a soft spot for the Netherlands: he often took on PhD candidates who looked at some aspect of Dutch law, chaired the Dutch–German Lawyers Association and is still affiliated with a number of Dutch universities.

He also has not been afraid to go his own way. “Even at his age – he’s over eighty now – he is still doing research on bankruptcies. What are the psychological and social consequences of different laws? He went to the Salvation Army and talked with people there who’d had to file for bankruptcy.”

She may be dean of a faculty that prizes Problem-Based Learning and thus small-scale tutorial groups, but she is also in favour of a certain type of lectures. “You can get a lot out of them, provided you attract students’ attention and engage them. Groβfeld was very good at that, as was Professor Hans-Heinrich Jescheck, who gave the criminal law lectures at eight am every morning during my first year in Freiburg. I used to sit at the front – I wanted to stay awake – in an auditorium with nine hundred students. Jescheck would walk around, pose questions, ask your name, make contact. After half a semester he’d know a third of the students by name. One morning, after a night out, I skipped a lecture. That afternoon I bumped into him on my bike. ‘Fräulein Schneider, you were absent this morning,’ he said. ‘Yes, Herr Professor’, I replied, shamefaced. He knew me; his personal approach worked. Just like with Professor Groβfeld.”



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