By Neil Harris
How close are those who teach law and those who work as practising lawyers? Some lecturers in law work quite closely with their practising colleagues. Others don't. It's not essential to be a qualified solicitor or barrister to teach the subject, so those interested in research may undertake PhD studies, develop their research skills, investigate concepts, and develop novel ideas. People who want to practise law take the professional routes of the Legal Practice Course and a training contract (for solicitors) or the Bar Vocational Course and pupillage (for barristers).
Academics and practising lawyers tend to have a different set of skills. Professional lawyers are concerned with running a business, solving day-to-day problems, having good client handling skills and maintaining their billable hours. Full-time academics are generally less commercially minded, though some engage in consultancy work. Their skills are in researching, analysing, presenting, teaching and assessing the work of their students.
There are often strong links between practising lawyers and academics that prove to be mutually beneficial. While those who are employed full time as teachers and researchers in universities tend not to have the time do any legal work with clients, many practising lawyers do work as part time lecturers in higher education.
Case Study 1: Practising Lawyer
Michael Keeler runs a small firm of solicitors from a farmhouse in Kenilworth and also teaches in the Law School at Warwick University. ‘This year', says Michael, ‘I'm teaching Constitutional and Administrative Law to the undergraduate lawyers and also to students on the BA course in Social Science. In earlier academic years I have taught a range of subjects including property law and company law. It works well because I live only six minutes from the campus. My business activity and academic work enhance each other and I am able to feed ideas to my students about how private practice works'.
‘I have had experience as a company director and also working as a lawyer for corporate clients. These experiences are valuable for students to know about and my academic work also acts as a stimulus to enhance my professional life'.
‘I enjoy working with young people and use of the facilities of the university library and electronically available data, which are a very good resource for me. While the hourly rate for university lecturing is not remotely comparable with the fees charged by professional solicitors, teaching is an activity I would certainly not want to give up'.
Case Study 2: Academic Lawyer
Norma Hird is an academic lawyer. She teaches insurance law, tort and commercial contracts in the law faculty at Sheffield University. ‘I have established links with many of the large City solicitors and some local firms', says Norma, ‘and I also do some work for law firms on a consultancy basis. Some sponsor our courses and many come to give recruitment presentations to our students. They also offer mock interviews helping our students to improve their job prospects. Barristers are also helpful in judging moots that we hold here and assisting with mock trials that are a part of our course'.
‘Some of our part-time colleagues do work for firms. We also have members of staff who act as consultants, for example, our criminologists are very actively working with Home Office and some NGOs'
Case Study 3: Self-employed Advocate
Flora Page is a self-employed advocate. After qualifying as a solicitor she later obtained higher rights of audience in the courts, working mostly to defend clients accused of crime. Flora also teaches students on the Bar Vocational Course at the College of Law in London. How does it work?
‘I started by teaching BVC students on two days each week in addition to working as an advocate in court but I found it difficult to organise because it was never possible to know when cases will be listed for hearing or how long any case I took on would last. So now I teach criminal litigation to students at the weekends and continue my advocacy practice on weekdays. It works well because I am able to illustrate points in criminal litigation tutorials with examples from my own experiences'.
‘The skills needed to teach and act as defence lawyer in court are complementary. In both cases I am on my feet performing with an audience and working face to face with people. It is essential to be on the ball and have constant engagement with them. Both activities also involve a considerable amount of desk work but I don't have to spend whole days in the office. In the English system an advocate needs to be robust, give knocks to the opposition and take knocks too. I don't do that with my students. If they repeatedly don't do the work that is set I might ask them to improve their performance but that aspect of teaching is not like being in court'.
‘We often get practising barristers along to talk to our students, tell them of their experiences and advise on how to succeed with life at the Bar. Barristers always enjoy the opportunity to deliver a judgement so we invite them to act as judges when we do mock trials with our students. Most of my teaching colleagues are still in touch with the barristers' chambers they once worked with'.
Working as a lecturer in law and at the same time as a practising lawyer is not easy. Getting the two activities to work together in harmony involves lots of hard work. But it can be done and those who do it find it rewarding. They find that the knowledge and skills required in both situations and the involvement with many kinds of people with a broad range of needs complement each other and enrich both activities. Students can gain a lot by learning from those who practise the law as well as teach it.