Amalia D. Kessler: Professor of International Legal Studies & Professor of History at Stanford University

My NativeAdVantage:


Amalia D. Kessler is the Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies and Professor (by courtesy) of History at Stanford University, as well as the Jean-Paul Gimon Director of the France-Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.  Having earned a law degree at Yale and a doctorate in European history at Stanford, she went on to work as a trial attorney within the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice before commencing her career in academia.  Her research focuses on the evolution of commercial law and civil procedure in both the United States and Europe, exploring the roots of modern market culture and present-day process norms. 

Her book, A Revolution in Commerce: The Parisian Merchant Court and the Rise of Commercial Society in Eighteenth-Century France (Yale University Press, 2007), was awarded the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize for the best book in English on any aspect of French history.  She has also received article prizes from the American Society for Legal History and the American Society of Comparative Law.  And she has just completed a new book—Inventing American Exceptionalism: The Origins of American Adversarial Legal Culture, 1800-1877 (Yale University Press, forthcoming fall/winter 2016)—which undertakes a critical history of the United States’ distinctive commitment to lawyer-driven adversarialism.  She has held visiting professorships at top universities around the world, including the Yale Law School, the Université Panthéon-Assas, the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, and the Tel Aviv University Law School.

What do you do best?

I study how legal institutions and cultures develop and change through time.  I seek to discover the forgotten and often surprising roads that led us to where we are today with an eye towards imagining new directions for the future.    

What makes you the best?

My work ranges across areas of law, time periods, and countries.  I aim to approach any given question with new eyes, so as to escape present-day blinders.

What are your aspirations?

I believe that the study of history matters (and matters greatly) for present-day law and society.  By uncovering the particular socio-legal, economic, political, and cultural forces underlying present-day legal ideas, rules, and institutions, I seek to demonstrate the sometimes arbitrary and pernicious underpinnings of our current landscape and to free our imaginations to explore previously unexamined (and even inconceivable) avenues of change.

Biggest Success?

Questioning whether what today seems natural or necessary really is so.  I’ve done this in my new book, Inventing American Exceptionalism: The Origins of American Adversarial Legal Culture, 1800-1877 (Yale University Press, forthcoming fall/winter 2016), which challenges the widespread assumption that American legal culture has always been (and is somehow necessarily) defined by a commitment to lawyer-driven adversarialism.

Most Challenging Moment?

Too many to list here!  But one was learning how to persuade my law students—brilliant but focused on current issues of law and justice—that the study of history matters greatly for those who want to bring about change in the present day. 

Favorite Motto?

Montaigne’s quip: The only thing certain is nothing is certain.

Favorite People?

My children, husband, and parents.  Also my beloved maternal grandmother.

Favorite Places?

Paris, New York City, all of Andalusia, Lisbon, Rome, and Tel Aviv.

Favorite Products?

Books!  Preferably in hard-copy form.  I also love the look, smell, and feel of archival records—the sense of a direct bridge to the past created by the awareness that I am touching something directly produced (and held) by someone in the past. 

Current Passions?

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about the history of informal methods of dispute resolution like arbitration and mediation.  And in my capacity as a mother of two children—a six-year old and a four-year old—I’ve been thrilled to rediscover books from my childhood that I haven’t had occasion to think about for many years, as well as to discover a whole new generation of children’s literature.