Academia is ‘a long way from my hopes of being a barrister but it’s an amazing life’

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By Chris Ashford on

Law students need to remember that “the you of today” may differ from “the you of the years ahead”, says Northumbria University professor of law and society Chris Ashford

I rocked up at university convinced I was going to be a barrister. I’d read the career guides, I knew the elements of qualification and I knew I’d have to study these things called ‘foundation subjects’. Contract presumably involved, well, contracts: those paper things you sign. Criminal law: those bad people who would make for an endlessly entertaining and worthwhile career. Tort, err, no idea. In truth, like many undergraduates arriving at law school, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

I quickly found subjects which engage with socio-legal study; welfare law, comparative law and constitutional law captured my interest. The only problem was that this interesting stuff seemed to have very little value for my career ambitions. Houston, we have a problem. It was only once I had embarked on my professional training that I realised the rich breadth of subjects on offer. I also realised that I wasn’t quite as determined on a legal career as I thought I was. The practice stuff seemed, well, kinda boring.

You see, it’s only when you arrive at university that you become aware that there are an awful lot of other people who seem to have had the same idea as you. They opted for a legal career too. The only snag is that they seem to want it a little bit more than you, have more money than you, more confidence, and their dad seems to have some annoyingly useful contacts and work placements already sorted. The offer of a week photocopying in the small town law firm back home seemed a tad underwhelming by comparison. That abstract debt for the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and the travel to mini-pupillages suddenly seemed slightly scarier, and the bankable career considerably less certain.

It’s in this moment that many can simply give up on a career in law. For some this is a shame, perhaps reflecting a failure to sufficiently prepare for the race they were embarking upon. More often than not, it reflects a lack of prior exposure to the realities of the legal marketplace.

In this respect, it helps to gain practical experience while at university and law school, be it through advice clinics, Streetlaw, pro bono or conventional work experience. The challenge for law schools is to balance this more careers-focused approach with providing what we call a “liberal” experience. After all, most students nationally don’t go on to legal practice.

This can be because they feel the barriers mentioned above are insurmountable, but in many cases it is because — like me — they come to the view that a legal career is not for them. A liberal degree provides an exposure to broader ideas, recognising the relationship between law and society, and the ways that law shapes and (re)makes the world around us. I’m biased, but this is the cool stuff. Of course, it’s not — or at least it shouldn’t be — completely separate from the practical aspects of the law.

The you of today may differ from the you of the years ahead. For that reason, it helps to be open-minded about your career. After eight years in legal education, at 33 I became a law professor, having advised parliament, the NHS, and shaped government policy. My research has shaped the thinking of other academics around the world and proven the stuff of nightmares for right wing neo-cons in the States, and social conservatives in the UK. I’ve also had the immense privilege of shaping the lives of hundreds of law students. I get to travel the world talking to people about my ideas and listening to theirs. It’s a long way from my original hopes of being a barrister but it’s an amazing job, and an amazing life. It’s a life enabled by a great law school experience and my own openness to possibilities. Remember, there are always possibilities.

Chris Ashford is professor of law and society at Northumbria University.

The full ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series is here.