Alumni of the HLS Graduate Program are well known for traveling around the world to meet up with their fellow graduates. But for Friðrik Árni Friðriksson Hirst LL.M. ’14, Hafsteinn Dan Kristjansson LL.M. ’13, Víðir Smári Petersen LL.M. ’15, and Kári Hólmar Ragnarsson S.J.D. ’20, all they need to do is walk down the hall.
That hallway is at the University of Iceland (UI) in Reykjavík, where the four teach in the Faculty of Law. Harvard Law Today recently caught up with them to learn more about how they came to be working together.
Harvard Law Today: Did you know each other before you came to HLS?
Kári Hólmar Ragnarsson: In the Icelandic legal community, everyone more or less knows everyone. Hafsteinn and I were classmates at UI, and we taught together as assistant teachers when we were master’s students.
Friðrik Árni Friðriksson Hirst: Víðir and I were in the same law school class at the University of Iceland. We graduated a few years later than Hafsteinn and Kári, who taught us tort law. Back then I would say that we were acquaintances but in recent years I have gotten to know all three of them better, not least due to our HLS connection and us now sharing an office here at UI.
HLT: Did you plan to go into teaching at the time, or was this a change in direction?
Hafsteinn Dan Kristjansson: I have always been immensely interested in academia, even before I graduated from UI. Currently, I’m teaching at UI and am a stipendiary lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford, and a graduate teaching assistant in Jurisprudence and Political Theory at the Law Faculty of Oxford. After I conclude my DPhil in jurisprudence from Oxford, hopefully this year, I intend to go into academia full time.
Víðir Smári Petersen: I was a practicing attorney when I got into HLS and my plan was always to pursue a career in that field. While I was working on my LL.M., I discovered that I liked researching and piecing together my own thoughts on a particular subject matter — so my LL.M. year actually changed my plans dramatically.
Ragnarsson: I did not plan to go into academia until my LL.M., when I decided to apply to the S.J.D. program. The previous plan was to continue in legal practice.
HLT: When did you start teaching at the University of Iceland?
Kristjansson: I started as an assistant teacher in 2007, teaching legal methods, tort law, and law of obligations, when I was a master’s student at UI. I became a lecturer at UI the moment I graduated in 2009 and an adjunct in 2013, when I returned from HLS. I’ve been teaching ever since.
Petersen: I started teaching as a teaching assistant in law of obligations and legal philosophy when I did my master’s. I became a lecturer at the University the same semester I graduated, and an adjunct in 2017. I was hired as an associate professor in 2020.
Ragnarsson: I started teaching in an adjunct capacity in 2017, during my S.J.D. program. I ended up flying over to Iceland a few times to teach international human rights law. I would go straight from the airport into the classroom, do a full day of classes, and then crash at a friend’s house. A few years later, when I had moved back to Iceland, I spent the spring semester of 2020 finishing my dissertation, taking over teaching the first-year constitutional law class when the professor was elevated to a judgeship, having my third child, and dealing with the lockdown. I started working full time as an assistant professor on January 1, 2021.
HLT: Have you done other work, before or in addition to teaching?
Friðriksson Hirst: I’ve practiced law as an attorney and since 2017 I have worked as the CEO of the Law Institute of UI, alongside other projects. In 2019, I enrolled in the PhD program at UI to conduct research into financial crime, especially money-laundering. I hope to conclude the degree in a few years’ time and during that time I will teach criminal law and related subjects.
Kristjansson: I’ve worked as a lawyer and later as the special legal assistant to the Parliamentary Ombudsman in Iceland.
Petersen: I’ve been a practicing attorney since 2011. I got my license to practice before the Supreme Court of Iceland in 2017 and I still litigate cases part-time.
Ragnarsson: I practiced law before studying at HLS. Mostly, I went straight from the LL.M. to the S.J.D. and then to teaching. I did take on a part-time project for the Icelandic Government to compose a draft bill, eventually passed into law, on the treatment of children born with variations in sex characteristics, which turned out to be a subject of heated political debate.
HLT: What are your principal areas of expertise/interest?
Ragnarsson: Public international law, international human rights law and constitutional law. I also manage a class on the law of the sea. Next year, I’m taking over management of the law school’s Jessup Moot Court Competition team. I also serve on the board of the University of Iceland’s Human Rights Institute.
Kristjansson: Legal methods and legal interpretation, administrative law, and European Union law. I also supervise the course Introduction to Law, where I’ve given the overview lecture on criminal law. I have taught jurisprudence and EU law to undergraduates at Balliol College and jurisprudence and political theory to master’s students at the University of Oxford. I love teaching.
Petersen: Property law and law of obligations. I also teach subjects in the fields of administrative law, contract law, and consumer law.
HLT: Looking back, is there something about your time at HLS that you’ve brought with you into your teaching?
Kristjansson: There were two things I really liked at HLS, which I’ve tried to incorporate in my teaching ever since. First is the Socratic method and in-class engagement with the students as opposed to one-sided lectures. Secondly, the critical approach to the subject matter.
Petersen: I’ve taught a course on Law and Economics. I took or audited all the courses that I could take in that field when I was at HLS, so my LL.M. year opened my eyes to new subject matter that I’m now very passionate about. I also learned from our teachers at HLS how important it is to be critical and not to take the courts’ arguments for granted, even though they are well written and sound sensible when you read them the first time. I still always keep this in mind when I’m preparing and teaching classes.
Ragnarsson: Icelandic legal education and legal culture tends to emphasize doctrinal approaches and black-letter law. My experience at HLS certainly equipped me to apply more critical approaches and broader contextual analysis. In terms of teaching methods, simple things like using name cards are something that I adopted after HLS. In my teaching I also try to hint at the kind of case method /Socratic approach that I experienced at HLS.
Friðriksson Hirst: What differentiates HLS from traditional Icelandic law studies is its emphasis on inter-disciplinary approaches to law, offering numerous courses interweaving law with economics, psychology, history, and philosophy, to name a few examples. I remember inter-disciplinary subjects taught by Kathryn Spier, David Cope, and Scott Brewer which were just excellent. Mr. Cope was also the advisor for my LL.M. thesis on prosecutorial discretion in which I employed both legal and empirical methods. I also hold in high regard corporate law courses taught by Jon Hanson and Mark Roe, who provided me with a better theoretical understanding of the inner workings of corporate law and its societal implications.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.