An Interview with Professor Stewart Macaulay

Portrait of Stewart Macaulay

"Sometimes the law on the books
matters a great deal; often it doesn't."

Q. What do you study?
I write about contract law, and my interest in business practices related to contract prompted my interest in sociology of law. Sociology of law focuses on how the law works or fails to work as planned and how ideas about law influence people for better or worse.

Why is your work important?
Insofar as it is, my work pushes those in the field to fashion a more accurate map of the way law works in all kinds of transactions. Moreover, many of my students will later be elected to office or serve on the staffs of legislative committees. They will find concern with the limits of effective legal action highly practical. Contract law also is a resource that lawyers planning transactions use as a tool in planning transactions and dealing with disputes. However, it is but one tool and not always the best one.

How does the Law School's law-in-action approach influence your research or your teaching?
This is the approach that I learned at Wisconsin when I was a beginning scholar. Our casebook is called: "Contracts: Law in Action." We work hard to put the problems we discuss into context. Why was there a problem? Why wasn't it settled; why did they go to court and appeal? And what was the consequence of the decision -- what happened next? Or as I sometimes put it in class: "legal rules do not have little legs so that they can wiggle down from the pages of law books and bite people." Sometimes the law on the books matters a great deal; often it doesn't.

Why did you go to law school?
It was the default major for someone who got good grades in subjects that did not stress math and science and always voiced his opinions.

What's the best thing about your job?
I get paid to do things that I really enjoy doing. I enjoy untangling the contradictions hidden in contract law. I like helping students understand things that they will have to know to be good lawyers. I like playing detective when I can discover what really happened before and after important contract litigation. I like being part of a serious scholarly community at Wisconsin that has existed for a long time. And I like working for the world's worst boss -- me. Of course, then I have to grade exams. Taking them is only a little worse than grading them.

How do you spend your time outside of work?
As I said, the great thing is that there isn't a sharp line between work and pleasure. I enjoy staying up late writing an article or revising a chapter in one of our casebooks. However, I love the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and for the last several years I have been on the board of Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin. We stage "Wright and Like" every year and open buildings for a day. We are renovating a 1914 Wright house in Milwaukee. I also am a Badger football and hockey fan; I've had season tickets for a long time. I watch the Packers on TV regularly. I read mysteries and espionage novels. I am a fan of big band jazz, and I have a very large collection of Duke Ellington CDs. I grade exams to Count Basie's music. It flows along nicely, and now and then there is a blast from the brass to wake up an old man.

Where do you take visitors when they come to Madison?
In addition to the lakes, the capitol and the Union Terrace, I often take them on a Frank Lloyd Wright tour of the city. Also, in the fall when the leaves are turning color, I like to drive west of the city on back roads through the rolling hills. When you get to the Mississippi, you have seen a beautiful part of the world.

Do you have any advice for an incoming 1L?
Work hard to understand the game we are playing in law school. It differs from what most students have seen before. The introduction to the contracts casebook tries to show you "what is it that they want me to learn." Get some old exams and see what is demanded.

Log in to edit