May 08, 2013— read in full
My job explained: Legal academic
Conor Gearty is a professor of Law at the London School of Economics, specialising in law relating to Human Rights. Read on to find out more about the life of a legal academic.
What's a typical working day for you?
I usually get up early and write before breakfast. It’s the only really uninterrupted time I have during the day so I find I can really concentrate. Most of the rest of the day is meeting people, seeing students, teaching, meetings and sometimes work at the Bar (very occasionally court work). I never work in the evenings, though sometimes there are receptions or dinners I go to.
How is your time divided between research, teaching, practice and other activities?
I find it very hard to read properly in term. But writing is easier - as I say, I do it in the very early morning. I find the best way to read is to have to do it, either for class or a book review so I am forced to find the time. Then there are all the cases you have to read as a law academic - people totally underestimate how much time proper reading takes. And there is so much more stuff about than when I started.
Teaching is pretty time consuming in term, especially when you take into account preparation (even if you know the stuff you have to think about it a bit before class) and of course also the essays. I usually take a day to prepare the week's class properly - I used to wing it much more but now I find preparation does pay off!
The bar practice depends on what's on. I have just finished a huge piece of work which I fitted in early mornings and at weekends. I am one of those people who does a little of any given project lots of times rather than a lot in one go. This really helps my concentration. Court cases are hard to fit in, though, especially if they don't tell you until the last minute when they are on. That is difficult to manage with the 'day' job.
I manage by always being alive to chances to get work done: essays, articles etc. I think people who know me say I do not easily relax...
What's the practical impact of legal academia on law and policy?
Sometimes if an academic writes a piece that clarifies the law the courts can pick up on it. Other times, an academic's overall engagement with something can have an influence on policy, i.e. the people who matter in government or wherever all have to read him or her.
And then there is the academic as a teacher, creating perspectives for future policy makers and judges. That is long term but should not be underestimated.
What are your specialisms and how did you choose them?
I wrote my first book on terrorism because of Northern Ireland's situation (in the 1980s). (I am Irish.) My first book on civil liberties was written with a friend in Cambridge who was as appalled as I was by Mrs Thatcher government and the way it was treating people. So my specialisms grew out of these interests. I did my PhD in environmental law and recently have been thinking again about that from a human rights perspective.
What advice would you give you law students who are considering academia?
Do really consider it. It’s a great job that gets better as you get older. Okay, so the money is supposedly not great but that's only in comparison to ridiculously overpaid people. By any normal standard it's well paid. You get to teach young people who always stay the same age even as you age, which is a great antidote to cynicism.
If you are interested, try to get the money to do a PhD early in your career or at least do a Master’s somewhere good. If you can specialise in an up and coming field it'll be easier to get work later, so choose your research interest with care, but most of all it has to be something you are interested in.
And very important: if you don't fancy teaching but are keen on research, don't become an academic. And if you don't want to do admin, don't become an academic. There are three parts to the job - teaching, research and admin - and colleagues who say their research is so good that's all they need to do drive me mad - selfishness masquerading as ability.
What has been your greatest academic or professional achievement?
Being remembered by my students years after I have taught them. That's my goal anyway – I’m not sure I achieve it but I am very pleased when now and again I see that it is the case.
Academically, I am proudest of my work on terrorism law, arguing against it come what may and not being put off by the strength of opinion in the opposite direction.