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Obituary: Ian R. Macneil

Professor Emeritus was a leader in contract law and headed one of Scotland’s oldest clans

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February 17, 2010 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
CHICAGO -- Ian R. Macneil, 80, the John Henry Wigmore Professor Emeritus of Law at Northwestern University School of Law and Chief of the Clan MacNeil, died Feb. 16 in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he lived.   

An accomplished scholar, Mr. Macneil was esteemed in the field of contract law and associated with the invention of "relational contract theory," later renamed "essential contract theory." He also was responsible, with Richard Speidel and Thomas Stipanowich, for a five-volume treatise on U.S. arbitration law, "Federal Arbitration Law: Agreements, Awards and Remedies Under the Federal Arbitration Act." In 1995, the treatise won the American Association of Publishers' Best New Legal Book Award.  

"Ian Macneil brought social and psychological perspectives to the contracting process," said Clinton William Francis, a professor at Northwestern Law. "He saw that contracts invariably are rooted in relationships that have a large context, rather than being discrete transactions."

"He was one of the leading contract scholars in the United States during his career," said David Ruder, William W. Gurley Memorial Professor of Law Emeritus at Northwestern Law, who was formerly a dean of Northwestern Law and chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission. "He was a warm, empathetic, forthright person whom the faculty held in great respect, and, though he had a reputation as a tough teacher, he was greatly admired by the students."

In 2000, Mr. Macneil was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his unique contributions to the legal and academic profession.

He was the author or coauthor of six books, including "The Federal Arbitration Act," "American Arbitration Law: Reformation and Nationalization" and "The New Social Contract - An Inquiry into Modern Contractual Relations," which is part of his work in developing a general theory of contract. He published more than 60 papers, monographs and other works.

President Barack Obama was in one of Mr. Macneil's classes when he visited at Harvard Law School, and, at that time, Mr. Macneil was prescient in remarking to his wife, Nancy, that Obama would become America's first African American president.

He joined Northwestern's faculty in 1980. Before that, he was a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and Cornell University Law School. He began his legal career in 1955 as a clerk for Judge Peter Woodbury, U.S. Court of Appeals, First Circuit, in Boston and later practiced law in Concord, N.H., with Solloway & Hollis. He received his law degree magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1955.

He administered the crofting estate on the Island of Barra in Scotland's Outer Hebrides for 35 years, before gifting the estate to the Scottish government. He also used his legal talent to defend the interests of Barra and was involved with a wide range of issues including fishing, crafting and the air and ferry services.

"Ian was a remarkable person, not just because he headed one of Scotland's oldest clans, but because he was an immensely kind, learned man who devoted his considerable talents to helping his community," said Alasdair Allen, MSP for the Western Isles.

Mr. Macneil is survived by his wife, Nancy; his two sons, Rory, now the 47th Macneil of Barra, and Sandy; and his daughter, Jenny.