David Caron: 'I want King's College London to be the Harvey Nichols of law schools'

A big donation from the luxury-goods businessman Dickson Poon means a new name and a bright future for law at King's College London. Its incoming dean tells Richard Garner his plans

A radical change in his lifestyle was hardly in the forefront of David Caron's mind as he quietly thought about the future while going about his job at the University of California, Berkeley. "I read a study –actually I didn't read it, I heard about a study – which said if you ask people how much they've changed over the past 10 years, they'll say 'radically'," the 60-year-old international expert says, philosophically.

"But if you ask them if they'll change over the next 10 years, they'll say 'no'. I could imagine myself 80 years old in Berkeley and still penning the odd article."

That, though, is not to be his destiny as – soon afterwards – he accepted a job as the new dean of the Dickson Poon Law School at King's College London (KCL). The department is so named because of a generous £20m donation from the owner of the Harvey Nichols empire, who aims to secure for the school the same status of world leader as his fashion store has earned.

It describes itself as "the world's leading international luxury fashion destination". The law school aims to gain a similar reputation in its field and Professor Caron's task as he starts his new job next month is to deliver upon that expectation.

He is relaxed about moving to London, a city he lived in for a while in his student days after a year on a Fulbright Commission scholarship at the University of Wales in Cardiff in 1979. At least the Welsh air helped prepare him for the vagaries of the weather.

He believes in soaking up the values of the community around him. "I was told if I wanted to get on with the Welsh people, I had to get to know about rugby or singing," he says.

He thought he would join the local Cardiff Polyphonic Choir but was told it would be difficult to get in as there were only 40 people in it. As luck would have it, a vacancy was created and he passed the audition.

He will adopt a similar approach to London when he starts full-time at KCL on May 1. "I think in London some people may have a preconceived notion of what an American is and that's a big part of it for me that I have appreciated through being involved in international law – you don't come with preconceived ideas," he says.

He will be masterminding the largest scholarship programme for law in the UK and the rest of Europe, aimed at attracting the brightest and best students from around the world.

The school is making 80 scholarships available as part of the £20 million gift – and the only proviso is some scholarships should be reserved for students from Hong Kong to comply with Dickson Poon's wishes.

The school was renamed after the Hong Kong philanthropist's donation, considered to be the largest private donation ever to any law school in Europe. Of course, the school is ideally situated – in the Strand in London, just a stone's throw away from the High Courts of Justice. Indeed, now that the newspaper industry has deserted nearby Fleet Street, the bars and wine bars near to the university constantly throb to the sounds of barristers' and solicitors' chatter.

In addition to the administrative work that his new posting will entail, Professor Caron will be delivering his own lectures to the students.

He will be able to tap into a rich legal history for this. For seven years he was one of three international lawyers dealing with injury claims arising out of the Gulf War and its aftermath. Jet lag has been a way of life for him. "It usually kicks in at about 3pm," he confides to me as we start the interview at about 12.30pm.

He is still actively involved in cases – one involves a dispute about the ownership of a small reef about 200 miles from Hawaii between the US government and a local inhabitant. "It is a fascinating case," he says.

He plans to finish his involvement with cases before he starts full-time in England but has so far not decided where he will settle once in the UK. "So long as there is a 40-minute walk to work, that's fine," he said.

Walking, he says, gives him time to think as he plans how to deliver in his new role. One of the reasons he accepted the job was because he firmly believes there is a need to establish strong, world-class university law departments outside of the US.

In the US, the law schools tend to adopt an American-centric approach to law, whereas the key philosophy of the Dickson Poon School of Law will be to establish a transnational approach to the study of law.

Professor Sir Rick Trainor, principal and president of King's College London – and himself an American émigré – says: "I am delighted that we have been able to attract a person of Professor David Caron's calibre, distinction and leadership abilities to such an important role.

"His deanship will now drive a recruitment campaign for eight new distinguished chair positions and a significant number of other teaching and research positions, establishing the law school as an unrivalled centre for legal research and education."

His appointment was also endorsed by Dame Rosalyn Higgins, former president of the International Court of Justice, who said: "Securing David Caron as its Dean of Law is a real coup for King's. It has at once obtained an outstanding administrator and signalled its intention to become a leading place to study international law."

Professor Caron added: "Dickson Poon's gift comes at the right time for a global community that seeks new and effective approaches to numerous challenges facing humanity – each of which transcends the borders of any particular state.

"I very much look forward to helping bring the collective excellence of King's College London and the legal community to bear on the most pressing issues of the day."

Professor Caron was not always associated with the law. He first attended the United States Coast Guard Academy, where he graduated with high honours with an emphasis in physics and politic science and as Commander of the Corps of Cadets in 1974.

He served in the Arctic as a navigator and salvage-diving officer aboard the US Coast Guard cutter Polar Star and then in San Francisco as the assistant chief of the Marine Environment Protection Service for California. He began his law studies at his current university – the University of California, Berkeley – after his spell as a student in Wales. Asked why he made the switch to law, he replies: "I think in part it is the second degree that defines what you will do – your first degree is more about maturing yourself as a person. I came to law six years late – but it was an important six years.

"I discovered I loved learning and I was just insatiable about it and still am in many ways. I moved from studying how things work to why people don't work – and how you could help them."

He is no stranger to change, then, although he did take time to talk about his new direction in life with his daughter before accepting the offer of dean at Dickson Poon. "I asked her 'should I take it?'," he said. "She said 'why not?'." Why not, indeed?

That is a philosophy he believes many people of his age should adopt.

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