Please tell us a bit about your background.
As long as I can remember, there were mountains—playground, refuge and danger zone. I was raised in Munich and in St. Johann in Tirol in Austria. My parents are from Silesia. My primary school teacher was a lovely Bavarian woman who spoke with a thick local accent. In the beginning, I hardly understood a word.
In secondary school, I read a novel about the discovery of benzene from coal tar which captivated me. I built a laboratory in our cellar and ruined my father’s tools by oxidising them. I was also interested in philosophy which my maternal grandfather, a former headmaster, encouraged me to study at university. My father, a manager, advised me to pick a more practical subject.
I mused over the issue during my time in the army. Eventually, I decided to read law—one could attend lectures on the philosophy of law and make a living as a lawyer. I studied in Munich and in Vienna where I spent one of the best years of my life. The iron curtain was falling, the city vibrant with wonderful music, art and theatre, and the summer was hot. After my undergraduate exams in Germany, I undertook postgraduate studies in England and in the United States and qualified as a lawyer.
It took me a while to settle down and start a family. My wife Kathrin is a judge. We have two kids: Luise (10) and Felix (7). Felix is easy-going, plays jazz guitar and paints well. He whistles better than Andrew Bird, I think. Luise is an avid reader and maths whizz, teaches her brother about every conceivable subject and aspires to lead our household.
What led you to a career in academia?
In my final year of secondary school, we were asked what we wanted to do. I wrote “university teacher”. There were many teachers in my mother’s family and I wanted to do what they did at a university.
The real push towards academia came in the form of a role model and later mentor of mine at Munich University: Andreas Heldrich. “You don't need many heroes if you choose carefully”, said John Hart Ely about Earl Warren. Andreas lectured on the sociology of law. I was fascinated by his analytical brilliance and stylish demeanour. Imagine a combination of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Oscar Wilde. “What can be said at all can be said beautifully” appeared to be his motto.
After law school, I made a detour into management consulting. I wanted to learn more about how business decisions are made as opposed to how they are judged. But I never seriously contemplated a career in business. I was already infected with the academic bug.
What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?
I am interested in philosophy, economics and psychology and in how these disciplines can help us understand legal rules, practices and institutions. My PhD dissertation was on “Efficiency as a Legal Principle”. It threw me into a crisis like no other project before or since. At the same time, completing it gave me the confidence that I could survive fundamental intellectual challenges.
As an aspiring academic, I thought about the fields where philosophy, economics and psychology could bring in a fresh and, hopefully, illuminating perspective. Commercial and corporate law, which had been the dullest subjects when I was a law student, were obvious candidates. So I wrote a monograph on a game theory analysis of corporate restructurings, and I have continued to study corporate and commercial law ever since.
I have also been fascinated by negotiation and dispute resolution processes for many years. It started in the 1990s when I was a postgraduate law student in the US and received mediation training. The usefulness of game theory and cognitive psychology to make sense of negotiation and dispute resolution processes is obvious. It is also a field where the link between theory and practice is very strong and you can contribute to making the world a better place. I have been running a programme to train schoolchildren as mediators in Luise’s school—an incredibly rewarding project.
What are you working on at the moment?
Since I came to Oxford, I have been working on the influence of technological advances, especially Artificial Intelligence (AI), on law and legal practice. This work led to a series of papers which deal with both conceptual issues and AI’s impact on specific legal problems in commercial and corporate law. A colleague of mine from Berlin (Gerhard Wagner) has done related work, and we are currently working on a book entitled “Law by Algorithm”.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting our lives and livelihoods. It also creates new and pressing research needs. Together with Kristin van Zwieten and Oren Sussman, I am investigating policy responses to financial distress induced by COVID-19 of millions of firms worldwide.
I have also started a project which deals with the conceptual foundations of corporate law. The dominant normative approach to corporate law is based on welfare economics. However, the efficiency calculus is arbitrary and inconsistent, and it is liable to all philosophical charges directed against utilitarianism. Moreover, wealth maximization (growth) is a recipe for ecological disaster, and has brought about ever-increasing inequality worldwide.
Capitalism’s legal growth engine is, of course, the corporation. I am working on a series of projects with Jens Dammann in which we explore the governance impact (and the impact on our democracies) of letting workers participate in corporate decision-making. More fundamentally, I am exploring whether the current system of unrestricted freedom to set up a corporation for any purpose should be curtailed. We might have to go back to a system in which the corporate licence is a privilege granted by the state only for specific, socially accepted purposes.
What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
As a student, I used to be a competitive long-distance and mountain runner (I competed for the other place). I have kept up running, climbing and ski-mountaineering ever since. My wife is an excellent ski-mountaineer with zero interest in competitions. Two years ago, I persuaded her to enter with me as a team in the Sellaronda Skimarathon. Friends warned that our marriage might not survive this. Fortunately, they were proven wrong. Whenever we find the time, we go climbing or ski-mountaineering as a family. When climbing, Luise and I lead on two ropes, and Felix and Kathrin follow; when ski-mountaineering, Felix races ahead, imitating his hero Michele Boscacchi. Moving with my family in the mountains makes me incredibly happy.