Becoming a Legal Academic
Before Christmas I was a guest on the excellent KidsLaw podcast and one of the questions I was asked by the 10 year old interviewer was what my work as a Professor of Law entailed. This is what I said:
‘I work in a university and there are basically two sides to my job.
One side is teaching law to students – this involves giving them lectures on what the law is and then having classes with them where we look at how the law applies and whether it is good or bad.
The other part of my job is research – writing about the law. This involves staring at legal provisions and seeing how they work. I then look to place laws in their historical and social context. I write books and articles based on this and argue for changes in the law’.
It struck me that this was not really a question I had been asked before and also not a topic that is often discussed. A lot of career sessions in Law Schools focus on becoming a solicitor or a barrister. Indeed, they go into the different types, different locales etc. But we rarely talk about why and how people become legal academics.
Talking about it is difficult because, by now, being a legal academic is as natural to me as breathing. And academic careers – perhaps all careers – are rarely the product of design. You can retrospectively identify a trajectory but in all likelihood it came about by happenstance. Being in a certain place, meeting particular people, studying specific things, saying yes to one invitation and no to another can all have significant often unforeseen and usually unexpected effects.
So, perhaps the best way – possibly the only way – of addressing the questions of why and how people become legal academics is to revisit why and how I became one. There is a need, however, to heavily caveat this with the disclaimer that nothing I am about to say is representative of any one’s experience other than mine and some of it is quite possibly ill-advised: I am sure I would have given my younger self advice to do things differently. And who knows what could have been the result of that!
I suppose the starting point is to consider why I decided to study law in the first place. Thinking back I am not sure what the reason was! I definitely wanted to go to university in that it seemed the natural progression but also a massive step into the big city from my small close-knit valley community. I suppose I was drawn to a law degree because law was seen as a ‘good’ solid subject and also because it was something I could study alongside Sociology which I had enjoyed studying at A Level.
I realised that I was most engaged whenever we studied something that had a real life dimension. I never really understood the periodic table or trigonometry because they never really appeared on the TV or in everyday life! So, on reflection, I think studying law appealed because it involved studying real life: both in terms of the big issues of the day that appeared on the news animating the public discussion but also in terms of its impact on everyday life, the way in which law regulates every transaction and the key events in life in terms of family relationships, employment and so much more.
I also knew quite early on that I didn’t want to go into practice, however. As the degree progressed, I found myself increasingly absorbed in legal research and much less keen on applying the law found in textbooks to abstract problem questions. I particularly enjoyed modules on Legal History and on Law and Religion – and writing my undergraduate dissertation on the legal status of the civil service. I loved the research: the finding out of new things, chasing footnote references, making links. And I also really enjoyed the writing process: playing with words, trying to express things succinctly but accurately, presenting things in a new way, making new connections.
These experiences made it obvious what the next step would be – and thanks to generous financial support from Cardiff Law School, I began work on my PhD, which combined the two halves of my undergraduate degree - law and sociology – to explore the development of the new field of Law and Religion and how it compared with the Sociology of Religion. And I haven’t stopped since! During the PhD I began teaching tutorials in criminal law as a part time tutor and then towards the end of the PhD, I was fortunate enough to obtain a lectureship in the Law School and following that over the years got promoted to Senior Lecturer, Reader and now Professor.
There has never been any grand plan in place. I have simply researched what I have found interesting and written things that I would like to read. In some respects, nothing has changed at all. If I look at what I am currently working on, it is clear to see echoes of my undergraduate degree interests.
I’ve been and am extraordinarily lucky to do a job that I love. That said, there has been a significant amount of hard work and graft. There is nothing as scary as a blank sheet of paper! Every time you write something, there are moments of doubt; of panic. Whenever you read something you’ve previously written you always either think it’s terrible or that it has set a standard that you’d never meet again! The same is true of other parts of the job too – especially when you take new things on, be that new modules to teach or new administrative jobs. You often feel outside your expertise, often thrown in the deep end!
It’s also very much a job of two halves, as I indicated in my answer on the KidsLaw podcast. And the teaching and research side of things are very different. The teaching side is heavily timetabled: you need to be in a particular place at a particular time to deliver particular content. It is necessarily a sociable activity: helping others grasp often complex ideas.
Research, by contrast, is where there is a great deal of autonomy – you decide what to specialise in, what areas to write on, what to write and for where. That’s great but can sometimes be terrifying. It means that you are responsible for your own choices and so can be your own toughest critic. There’s no one else to blame!
Research is often a solitary activity; although I have been exceptionally fortunate to work with great co-authors over the years, the actual writing happens alone with me manically typing away, either elated or bereft, often frantically reading aloud the text on the screen to see whether it flows and invariably cursing when it does not!
But the teaching and the research are not entirely separate activities. They inform each other- not only sometimes in terms of the content but also in terms of the basic task: which is to make a point in an accessible way while still being accurate. That is the tightrope that all legal academics walk. It’s a difficult task but it is extremely satisfying when it works.
And both roles – teacher and researcher – require you to put yourself out there as an authority. You need to know your stuff. And in the eyes of others, your subject and possibly your arguments become linked to you. It is you that is cited in other academic works and who is the subject of student feedback and module evaluations. This sometimes means that it is difficult to separate yourself from your work – this is something I have had to learn over the years.
Of course, there are aspects of the job that are quite similar to what I assume other jobs to be. As you would imagine, there are lots of emails – not only from within the university but also relating to my roles elsewhere – so to do with the book series that I edit, for instance. There are also invitations to speak at or write for certain things and requests to read pieces that others have written. Social media is also an important component: it’s an easy way of keeping up with developments and also sharing your research. Self motivation and time management are crucial, trying to work out how much time each task deserves.
I’m not sure how much use these reflections are to anyone considering becoming a legal academic. Every experience is different and who knows the extent to which I have become a legal academic despite my temperament and experiences! There is no set course on becoming a legal academic and there are different types of legal academics. Some focus solely on teaching and scholarship and not research. Some of those who go on to have the kind of career I have had – focusing on research and teaching – tend these days to take a similar route to what I have done in terms of getting a PhD and then looking for lectureships. But it is also common for people to come to academia as a second career, possibly from practice. It is now usually necessary for lecturers to have some form of teaching qualification but this is usually obtained ‘on the job’.
So, in terms of giving advice to others considering such a career, I think my first response would be to ask what their motive was. If they were passionate and constantly fascinated about research and writing – and dedicated to education and enlightening future generations helping them to understand and question the law, then I would know that they were suited to being a legal academic.
In that case, they probably wouldn’t need my advice but if they asked, I’d tell them the importance of self-discipline, knowing how much time and energy to devote to each task. I’d also say to think big and to grab the opportunities that arise. Always follow your gut and be ambitious in the sense of trying to get stuff published in the places where it’s likely to be most read and being creative and enthusiastic in terms of teaching in a way that engages students, remembering that the focus is on their learning not on you.
I would also stress the importance of drawing a line between you and your work and, most importantly, of trying to be thoughtful and kind. It’s so easy not to be – to be so wrapped up in your own work that you forget others exist – and it’s something that I do not always achieve. But it’s so important.
I think I would point them to the quote from the KidsLaw podcast and ask whether either or both of the two parts of the job sounded of interest; whether they could see themselves devoting hours and hours to trying to perfect it; whether they have the self-confidence to not only manage their time well but to also push themselves to do the best they possibly can. If there is excitement in their eyes, inquisitive thoughts running through their mind, self-doubt languishing in their gut but perseverance in their heart then chances are they would be well suited to being a legal academic.
You can follow Professor Russell Sandberg's academic journey on Instagram @sandbergrlaw