‘Training contracts were hard to come by: 147 applications resulted in 147 rejections’

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The 90s recession proved a blessing in disguise for Lancaster University senior law lecturer Angus MacCulloch…

If I knew then what I know now…I’d hope that I’d be a bit more confident and strategic as student, but only a little.

My career has largely been the result of luck and a series of opportunities that happened to open up at just the right time. It’s not an approach I’d suggest to any of my students, but it has put me in a very good place as I venture into my 40s.

I was the first member of my family ever to go to university, and my absence of planning was indicative of a lack of experience and minimal aspiration. I was interested in joining the Police when I was a child and the law seemed to fit with a potential career in the ‘Glasgow Polis’. It was luck, and flunking one Higher exam, which meant that I missed my Strathclyde offer, and was accepted at the University of Dundee. So having only turned 17 in late May I was to up-sticks in October, leave behind my friends and family, and move to Dundee to attend a university I hadn’t even visited during the application process.

A very nervous and shy Glasgow schoolboy was given the opportunity to reinvent himself and strike-out on his own in a way he couldn’t have done if I he had stayed at home. That nerdy boy was no more — I grew my hair, bought a bikers jacket, discovered beer, and made a load of great new friends. The external transformation into an archetypal student was the easy bit, the transformation into a lawyer and then an academic took a lot longer.

What held me back most was a lack of confidence. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing. I had brilliant tutors, many of whom I still keep in touch with today, and they helped me to begin to develop the skills I needed, but they couldn’t really convince me that I belonged. My first year results were less than impressive — managing to fail ‘Legal Method’, which necessitated a summer resit. I avoided speaking too much in seminars, largely by being quick to volunteer to answer the easy questions early on in the hope of avoiding the more tricky questions later.

Mooting and public speaking were a particular horror which I forced myself to do in the hope that I’d conquer the fear — but I never did. If anyone has suggested that I’d have a career that required you to stand in front a couple of hundred people and speak for two hours at a time I would have thought them deluded. I soldiered on and began to think and write more like the lawyer I wanted to become. After four enjoyable years finding myself and doing my LLB, I came out with a respectable, but unremarkable, 2:1. Sadly I hadn’t done any of *extra* things that I now know that I should have been doing.

I didn’t really know what it took to make you a solicitor; my dislike of public speaking had ruled out advocacy for me, and I hadn’t really taken any steps to get myself ready for a career outside university. If I had been a little more confident in those early years, or maybe if I’d just waited until I was 18 to head off to uni, perhaps I would have been clearer in what I wanted to do. Also I would have worried less about the academic work and thought more about readying myself for the next step.

I graduated in 1992 towards the end of the early 90s recession. Times were tough and training contracts were hard to come by; 147 TC applications resulted in 147 rejections. I went on to do the Diploma in Legal Practice, which was then state-funded. But with no legal work on the horizon I chose to go back to uni, courtesy of the Bank of Mum & Dad, to study an undergraduate favourite. My LLM in EU law was when I began to feel properly at home with a topic, and for the first time I began to feel the confidence that I should have done years before. I also met up with an exciting young lecturer who gave me a lot of support, encouraged me to push on with my writing, and convinced me that there might be a future in me doing something in competition law (thanks Barry).

The final lucky break for me was south of the border; the English legal profession had just noticed the EU, and were about to make the study of EU law compulsory in the qualifiying law degree (QLD). There were suddenly a lot of EU law teaching posts in England. With a new LLM in hand, I was off to Manchester as a graduate teaching assistant. I’ve never looked back, and I’ve stayed teaching EU law and competition law in the North West ever since.

There are two lessons you can take from my haphazard stagger towards an academic career. One way to go, if you do know what you want to do, is to make sure that you are doing the right things to get there. Don’t muddle along and get caught up in the little things as I did. Look at the big picture and get a handle on what you want to do, and how best to get there. If I had done that I might now be a “proper lawyer”. But on the other hand, the 17 year-old me would have dismissed the idea of being an academic out of hand. It turns out he was an idiot. I was very lucky to end up where I am, and I love what I do now. Taking your time and seeing what opportunities arise can get you to where you want to be, even if you don’t know where that was until you actually get there.

Angus MacCulloch is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University Law School.

The full ‘If I knew’ series is here.