Saturday, April 05, 2008

Peter and Me: Long Term Interviewing

During my stay here in Miami I started a new research project. It's based on a man called Peter Lederer. Peter is a Visiting Practitioner at the Law School and he is also a member of the Visiting Committee of the school. His association with the school goes back to the days of Soia Mentschikoff's decanal period.

Peter was also the sixteenth partner, or thereabouts, hired at a fledgling law firm in Chicago, Baker & McKenzie. His practice has spanned the second half of the 20th century and beyond. For me he personified the globalization of law and lawyers. My idea was to tell the story of the emergence of globalization through his life story. (I have written about Baker & McKenzie in relation to other law firms--paper downloadable here.)

Peter agreed to this venture and we began a series of interviews that are still in progress. Thus far we have recorded about 15 hours. Fortunately, Peter is blessed with near total recall and wonderful descriptive powers. His career has taken him all over the world, helped build a pre-eminent global law firm, and brought him a range of interesting cases.

I am used to interviewing lawyers because I have been doing throughout most of my academic career. But those interviews are very different from what Peter and I have been doing. My usual style of interview last for around one, two or three hours in the lawyer's office, and done with a particular purpose in mind. I might be writing about solicitor-advocates or the globalization of the secondary distressed debt market.

With Peter it's not like that at all. It is an open-ended process that has no automatic closing. Moreover, in a short interview one needs to establish a minimum of trust but not much more, and there is also the implicit knowledge that we will have nothing to do with each other after the interview.

Because we are talking about Peter's life, career, law firm, and cases and more, the interaction between interviewer and interviewed becomes critically important. You have to like each other. You must respect each other. And you must both be prepared to take risks with each other. All of this takes time, and commitment. Peter and I would meet two or three times a week and the psychodynamics of our interaction would evolve. The longer we talked, the easier it became. There was no competition but instead as much cooperation as we could muster. The process, as much as one might want to fix it initially, eventually takes on a life course of its own.

The talk was varied. At times we would focus on particular details; at others we would be talking global context. The interview, because it's not fixed by "normal" time constraints, had a flexibility not usually encountered. A sense of play enters as we explore the different dimensions of our subject(s). We were not forced into a particular format of linearity or topic-based narrative. We could switch around as points and topics caught our imagination.

We could also go back since we were not committed solely to that particular occasion. There was time in between interviews for the conversation to percolate and stimulate new questions and identify gaps.

I'm now having the interviews transcribed so I can review them and analyze them, which in itself will raise new questions that we will have to tackle. There is no predictable closure to this process.

I am enjoying this immensely. It is new to me and I would like to do more of this type of interviewing. It is a luxury to indulge in this but it is so valuable in what emerges. It takes a commitment of time, of course, but most importantly, it commands a commitment to empathetic understanding (even Versterhen as Weber called it) that allows selves to interact in new and imaginative ways.

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