From City law to academia: Dr Steven Vaughan tells Legal Cheek why he sacked off a six-figure salary to teach

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By Katie King on

Hugging partners in lifts and kissing fellow vac schemers

Dr Steven Vaughan, currently a senior lecturer and researcher at UCL, has told Legal Cheek why he left his City law job for academia.

Though Vaughan had every intention of becoming a criminal defence barrister when he started studying at Oxford, three vac schemes and a first-class law degree later he began a training contract at magic circle firm Freshfields, where he later qualified.

He then moved to Latham & Watkins to continue his environmental law practice, a subject he still researches today. On his specialism, he reflects:

I kind of wish, sort of, that I’d been a corporate lawyer now rather than an environmental lawyer. Corporate lawyers are right in the middle of everything and to be a good corporate lawyer you have to know bits of real estate, tax, environment, IP, employment. So I loved my specialism, but three-quarters of the time I was feeding into someone else’s transaction.

Though both firms are very different — Latham’s US West Coast heritage means Vaughan sometimes found himself getting hugs from partners in lifts, not something that happened at Freshfields — he loved them both. “I still think sometimes ‘should I have left?’,” he admits.

After nine years in practice, Vaughan ducked out of the City and found himself in Cardiff studying for a PhD in chemical regulation (“most fascinating area of law out there”). His reasons for leaving were twofold. The first is that he’d always wanted to do a PhD, and realising he wasn’t getting any younger now seemed like the right time. The second is that he was dumped after a whirlwind of a relationship and wanted to get out of London.

Though Vaughan concedes he misses doing important, headline-making work (“I loved that, I loved being centre of attention”), his academia has led him across four of the country’s most prestigious universities: Cardiff, Bristol, Birmingham and now UCL.

Alongside his teaching, Vaughan has research interests spanning environmental law, the legal profession and corporate finance. He recently co-authored a paper on the experience of LGBT+ barristers, which revealed homophobia at the bar is worse than the profession-wide average.

Vaughan, himself gay, remembers feeling discriminated against when, as a vac scheme student, he kissed another vac schemer in front of a partner and experienced some pushback from associates who thought his behaviour was inappropriate. Thankfully, a chat with a partner of the firm, also gay, quelled Vaughan’s annoyance. Now, he says: “On reflection, it was a really stupid thing to have done. It could have risked my chances of a training contract offer.”

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