What is a lawyer?

Monday, October 27th, 2014 at 19:30
(Thanks to Dilbert.com)

It’s a hoary old question, tired and probably pointless today. Yet Jonathan Goldsmith has asked it again as he works the room at the International Bar Association’s meetings in Tokyo. He tries to answer his question using what we call the “trait” theory of professions. Do you pass exams? Do you have ethical codes? Is the work exclusively yours?

The result is of course equivalent to how long is that string? As long or as short as you’d like. This type of approach doesn’t get you anywhere.

What is particularly noticeable to anyone who studies lawyers, legal professions and professions in general is Goldsmith’s singular lack mention of the types of conditions under which lawyers and professionals work. The organisation whether it be law firm or hospital is now crucial to understanding the nature of professional life and work.

Goldsmith talks about “the lawyer” in the abstract as a myth almost rather than someone engaged in expert labour within an organisational setting. Even that most singular of legal professions, the barrister, is really a creature of the organisation.

The Lawyer today published a report on the UK top 200 law firms with a special section on the top ten chambers. They are listed by chambers earnings and revenue per barristers within each chambers, not by single barristers.

Being a lawyer is another occupation like most. Goldsmith’s thinking is indicative of a desire for a “golden age” of lawyering, which probably never existed–only in misty dreams. He alludes to but tries to avoid the idea that lawyers are no longer exclusive.

Machines, paralegals, technicians, accountants, consultants even are all engaged in the “practice” of law these days. They may not call themselves lawyers but they do law. The new legal services markets now emerging are signs that the distinctiveness of the lawyer is being eroded.

It might mean that lawyers’ skills are redundant. I think this unlikely. Or it could mean that lawyers’ skills are inadequate to the demands of today’s business and legal markets. If they are inadequate then others invade your turf and take your work. So it’s up to the profession(s) and the academy to (re)produce lawyers/professionals fit for the modern age. And don’t worry about definitions. Hardly anyone cares.

(Thanks to Dilbert.com)

 

And on that last point, Law Without Walls is gearing up for its new session next January.

 

Brains, Music and Life…

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014 at 11:36

 

A good friend of mine, Jon Harman, made this video a year ago. I love it. I was reminded of it after reading about President Obama’s new BRAIN Initiative.

Making Sense of Universities’ Disciplines

Friday, September 26th, 2014 at 12:49

ucd-igu

 

 

This is my new academic home. But this isn’t a post about it but rather what we do in universities. It is the concatenation of several events over the past few weeks. They are my immersion into a new law school, a conversation with a director of a public affairs think tank, and reading some articles about the role of university disciplines. And finally, visiting an art exhibition held in the science department at UCD.

I have always been a hybrid. I’m trained in both law and sociology and and I am happy to straddle the boundary between them. This doesn’t always fit in with the ways universities like to organise themselves. That is done according to disciplines or subjects so we can have schools and departments. And, when, as in the UK, one has reviews like the Research Excellence Framework (REF), disciplinary boundaries become sharp indeed. Funds, PhD students, research fellowships are jealously guarded and ring fenced.

But is this the best way for us to educate and to do research? Administrative convenience is no reason for continuing this state of affairs. It is by breaking boundaries we discover new ideas and ways of formulating them. Law is a good example of this. For years law has followed a settled path of teaching “core” subjects. It has become habituated to it. It exists in its own bubble. Yet from all around are voices talking about commodification of law, the globalisation of law, and law as an offshoot of behavioural economics, for example. None of the core courses take account of these.

Just recently there has been a mini-revolution in the teaching of university economics. Students have clamoured for a more realistic type of economics, one that recognises its failure in the recession. Oxford and many other institutions are now putting forward a new curriculum. It isn’t exactly May 1968 all over again, but there has been change. Unfortunately, law has not been so visited. Even the Legal Education and Training Review in the UK seemed empty of student contributions.

Terry Eagleton wrote that he was worried that with the commercialisation of higher education the humanities could suffer, even be eradicated from the university, which would result in their death. He’s right. If we take the commercial route–let’s have all our law graduates “practice ready”–we will impoverish our students’ education. However, I’m not sure that we do much better right now. In Europe, as opposed to the US, law is posed as a liberal education. Yet much of what students learn is technocratic and rule-based. I have difficulty in characterising this as liberal education.

But with our disciplinary boundaries, it’s difficult to achieve a more cohesive and blended education for students. Jonathan Wolff argues for scholarship that is more confusing and more exciting, which can be done by blurring boundaries. Taking law as my case (and forgetting Eagleton’s comment “real men study law“), we can see all sorts of interesting things happening. One that appeals very much to me is the input of design into law. Margaret Hagan’s work in the use of design to improve accessibility to law by users but why not students too? (See this wonderful page on beauty and law.) I will go further. I’m involved in Law Without Walls and one of our best student projects was one that Margaret was involved in called Traffick Junction. Go look. It’s inspiring.

If we want to give our students a truly liberal law education then we must incorporate other subjects and approaches. We will enrich our cognitive capacities, expand our thought processes, and make learning (and research) more enjoyable and potentially more useful for society. It is by embracing this interdisciplinarity that we become imaginative and creative. Which leads me to the conversation with the think tank director. He talked of how he had to deal with disciplines by stealth because empires were at stake. It would take time, but one way of getting there was by what he called the “co-production of knowledge”. By crossing boundaries, by working with students, by using social media, we take knowledge out of the silo and place it in the community where it belongs.

I hope we will achieve some of this here.

 

Goodbye London, Hello Dublin…

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 at 18:09


From September 2014 I’m taking up a new position at the UCD Sutherland School of Law as the McCann FitzGerald Professor of International Law and Business. I’ve been an external examiner at UCD for the past three years and have got to know and like the people there.

The position is everything I could imagine focussing on globalization, lawyers, law firms, international business, all with a sociological twist. I will be running a joint MSc in international law and business with the UCD School of Business. UCD will be joining Law Without Walls as well this year.

And, of course, Ireland is about to introduce its new legal services regulatory structure which I can’t miss. (For more on this see Maeve Hosier’s new book, The Regulation of the Legal Profession in Ireland, Quid Pro Books).

UCD has opened a new law building this year which is beautiful and is one of the best I’ve seen.

 

 

It reminds me of my home in London with its open spaces and great use of glass. It’s a convivial space.

 

 

I won’t be severing all my ties with London (pace Dr Johnson). University College London has made me an Honorary Professor of Law. And I shall be a Visiting Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Westminster. I will also continue to be a member of the Research Strategy Group at the Legal Services Board.

In a way, it’s a return to my roots.

PS. The gym at UCD has kettlebells!

Are Machines Ethical? at ILEC VI in London

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014 at 09:00


I gave my paper on “Are Machines Ethical?” which was based on this slide. It’s a work in development which will ultimately result in a paper.

Paul Maharg of Australian National University blogged on the session that included my paper. He’s taken the topic in an interesting direction, even to the extent of quoting from his friend’s, Peter McCarey, poem. I’ll let you read it at his post here.