What it’s like to quit practising law aged 27 to do an LLM

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By The Careers Team on

City University Professor of International Economic Law David Collins has never looked back


“We tend to glamorise the law,” says Professor David Collins, recalling his own early days as a junior lawyer living a life that failed to live up to the Suits TV series dream.

Working at the Toronto office of a large Canadian law firm, Collins found himself frustrated by a diet of low level and often repetitive work that yielded an impressive salary but minimal job satisfaction. He recalls being far from alone in feeling disillusioned:

The truth is that a lot of graduates get out there and get into work that is not especially rewarding, and they can find themselves stagnating after a few years.

Deciding “not to take the gamble of staying where I was”, Collins struck out into the world of further education in a quest for greater fulfilment. This meant leaving his native Canada to move to the UK, where he enrolled on a masters of economic and social history course at Oxford, mostly for fun. “It was very hard because you are going against expectations,” he says, continuing:

I remember my mother saying, ‘Why are you getting another degree? Why don’t you get married or buy a house?’ And then suddenly I had no income and was eating in the school canteen again and sleeping in a dorm. But then that’s part of the fun of it.

Having excelled on the masters, Collins bagged a place on the coveted Oxford Bachelor of Civil Laws (BCL), which proved to be the perfect jumping off point for a new life as an academic specialising in international economic law.

His role as Professor of International Economic Law at City University — which Collins joined in 2005 as a lecturer — has brought together the various strands of his career. He reflects:

I’ve been lucky with academia. I had done a little teaching before and I thought I would try this for a year and figured I could always go back to what I used to do. But I realised within a few weeks that it was something special and have never looked back.

He adds that two factors have “massively helped” — the first, that one of his specialisms, international investment law, has grown rapidly as a phenomenon since he first looked into it almost ten years ago; and the second, City’s rise as an institution over the last decade.

Collins’ other areas of focus are international trade, global monetary policy and development. And as London has boomed in the wake of the financial crisis, he has found himself well-served by City’s location in the heart of the action and its close links with government and the legal profession.

Being in London, what more could you ask for?” continues Collins. “I am at the centre of the legal world and can literally walk into the offices of the world’s largest law firms in 20 minutes if I ever need to. And then there is all the tech activity going on around the Silicon Roundabout which is also on our doorstep.

A fascination with this burgeoning world has seen Collins co-found Start-Ed, an award winning pro bono legal advice clinic for start-ups focussing on London’s Tech City hub.

The clinic is partly staffed by his students — a group of largely international law postgrads, some of whom are taking time out from big firms like Baker & McKenzie and Freshfields.

“They are getting to see so many people with really interesting business ideas,” says Collins, “and then face the challenge of fitting the law that they know to these dynamic scenarios.”

Often these students return to their law firms, or go on to forge different careers in practice. It’s a route that Collins could well have taken himself if the opportunity with City hadn’t come calling. But he is grateful that it did:

I have so much freedom. What is really nice is to be able to walk into a library, grab a book that interests me, and work that into my writing or teaching. And getting to travel around the world to speak about things that interest me is also pretty great.

His advice to others who feel that maybe the traditional career path of a lawyer isn’t for them? He responds:

With a job, as with most things in life, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I enjoying this? And if you are not happy, you need to seek out changes. Education is one way of doing that.

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