Some Expert Advice: Doctoral Studies in Law and a Career in Legal Academia

Heather Katharine Allansdottir is currently at the Department of Law and Sciences in Bifrost University, Iceland.
Heather Katharine Allansdottir, Bifrost University.

Heather Katharine Allansdottir

The first part of my column covered the advantages and challenges of pursuing a PhD in law. After completing a PhD in law, some may wish to continue a career in legal academia (as I am currently doing!) so, this second part will set out the possible avenues for a successful and rewarding career in legal academia.

In some ways, a career in legal academia is the same as a career in academia in general. After successfully passing your PhD viva and fulfilling any corrections to obtain your PhD, a junior scholar will typically undertake a number of post-doctoral positions, which will enable them to focus on their research – typically producing academic papers, or, if appropriate, turning their doctoral work into a book with a university press, or a ‘monograph’.

After several post-doctoral fellowships and with a developing publication record, the academic can then apply for ‘tenure’, which means becoming a faculty member and obtaining a permanent post at a university. Tenure is an exciting and significant moment in an academic’s life, and a reward for the often gruelling first years of post-PhD life of post-doctoral fellowships.

Being a faculty member means both job security and job satisfaction – you are now free to teach more freely in your own interests and devise your own courses, and pursue your own research interests and publications.

In other ways, legal academia differs from our academic peers in other disciplines such as the humanities and social sciences.

Firstly, the teaching is much more standardized than in many other faculties, which gives legal academics the advantage of being able to find work in a number of different law schools without worrying too much about specialisms in the way that humanities and social science academics do.  The curriculum of law schools is much more uniform than many other areas of academia such as the humanities and social sciences.

Law is a highly creative endeavour, but it isn’t interpretative dance – law students must be taught a strict curriculum so that they can go out into the world of law and practice their profession, just as a civil engineer must leave university knowing how to make sure a building stays standing up.

Another difference between legal academic and academic disciplines such as the humanities is that it can be easily – and rewardingly – combined with a career in legal practice, as a barrister or solicitor, whether through one’s own private practice or working part-time in a law firm.

During my doctoral studies, the most impressive and inspiring Professors of Law were practicing barristers in the UK, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere, and combined this work with their academic pursuits, generally working academically in the field in which they also practiced, such as employment law, discrimination law or family law.

In this manner being a legal academic is more akin to being an academic of computer science or engineering than being a humanities or social science academic – the ‘ivory tower’ is not very far away from the real world, and you can find a way to operate in both worlds in a way that suits you best.

As a legal academic, you may also be drawn upon for advice by governmental bodies, NGOs, policy and think tanks, and other relevant organisations in public life, and this can be very rewarding although requires a discerning approach by the legal academic in regard to which organisations they would like to be associated with.

Legal academia also has a very specific relationship with the senior judiciary, particularly when academic articles inform judgements and help shape the law itself by feeding into the decisions made by senior judges.

In this sense, legal academia – whether combined with legal practice or not – might be the best way for a law student to go on to leave their mark on the body of law and on society as a whole.

And in being an academic you are also both teaching and setting an example for a younger generation – the future lawyers who will shape the law, and society, in turn.

(Find out more about Heather in this interview we published earlier this year)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.