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France's Most Distinguished, Revered and Difficult Law Professor

By William Tetley, Q.C.

Professor Rene Rodière was the most dominant maritime lawyer and professor in France in the last half of the 20th century. He had been Dean of Law in Algiers and came to Paris where he rose to the top as head of the Institut de Droit Comparé during a very competent and competitive period of academe. The French Government after the War wished to up-date its maritime laws and named Rodière chairman of a committee. If Rodière consulted at all, it was only briefly, and then he single-handedly wrote France's five basic maritime laws, which are modern and valid to this day. 50 years ago, for example, he solved the problem of the responsibility of stevedores for cargo after discharge, which the rest of the world is still struggling with.

Rodière was proud of his ability, but could not suffer criticism of even the most modest kind and was known far and wide for being "très difficile".

In the early 1960's, I was reading one of his excellent texts and referring to it in what was to be my first book, when I noted two slight errors. Knowing of his prickly reputation I wrote a long letter of praise at the end of which I mentioned my two comments. I never heard from him, but noting that he made the two corrections in his next edition I wrote a letter saying I would like to meet him when in Paris. I heard nothing, but nevertheless called at his office on my next trip and he sent a lady assistant to say he was too busy to see me.

I spent eight years in politics and then was at McGill, doing my second edition when I noticed that in one of his texts, Rodière had copiously cited my first edition. I learned later that he never cited persons he deemed rivals and therefore, in advance of my next trip, I wrote again saying that I would like to meet him. Arriving in our hotel in Paris I was met by a hand-written letter from Rodière, advising that he was having a dinner in his home in our honour on the weekend and that my wife and I must take a certain train into the country and he would meet us at the station.

I told two leading lawyers, (Jean Warot and Jacques Villeneau) of the coming dinner at Rodière's home and both were astounded, never having been invited there themselves, although both of them, like Rodière, had been presidents of the prestigious Maritime Law Association of France. Each took me aside and advised privately that "Rodière is very difficult and works very quickly, but not well". This was not quite true. He must have worked at the speed of light to produce the five laws and five texts, which he wrote, yet he always did excellent work.

My wife and I took the train as ordered, but no one was at the station, except for a figure crouched in the long grass, inspecting some of the flora. It was Rodière, who doubled as an amateur botanist. He was dressed, not as expected in a double waste-coat, hard collar and pince-nez, but in gray flannels, tweed jacket and was puffing on a large pipe. He was charming, and drove us off to his home where he presented us to a roomful of ambassadors and senior professors as the evening's guests of honour. He then took me aside and said disarmingly "You know, Professor, I work very quickly, but not well."

Rodière was difficult and his public tirades legendary. Once he was a speaker at an important anniversary of European Transport Law, edited and published by the famed Belgian maritime lawyer Robert Wijffels, of Antwerp. There were to be questions at the end of the presentation and an elderly professor rose and enquired diffidently after a long tribute to Rodière, whether he might ask a question. Rodière nodded slowly and when the professor had completed his question Rodière retorted "Never in my life have I heard such a stupid question." There was a gasp from the audience, who rose as man and with a swoosh left the hall and that ended the conference.

Rodière died apparently over decaying teeth, which he stubbornly refused to have treated by a dentist. It turned out that Rodière was a Protestant and of a sect that always published a biblical phrase in every obituary. Rodière was a ladies' man, but his wife, who was charming and a personality of her own, was loyal to him to the end. Madame Rodière, nevertheless had the last word when she ended Rodière`s obituary with the verse "Forgive me Lord, for I have grievously sinned."

Prof. Prof. William Tetley, Q.C., practiced law from 1952 to 1968, in what is now Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, was in the Quebec National Assembly from 1968-1976 and from 1976 to the present has taught law at McGill University. He is Counsel to Langlois Kronström Desjardins of Montreal and Quebec City.

Email: william [dot] tetley [at] mcgill [dot] ca (William Tetley)
Website: http://www.mcgill.ca/maritimelaw/

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