‘Abandoning the Vanity of Lawyers’: Some Advice for New Law PhDs

Anglia_Ruskin_LogoI was very pleased yesterday to go to Cambridge and give the first of a new series of lectures to PhD students in Anglia Ruskin University. Over the year, the lecture series will bring a number of scholars to the University to speak to PhD students about particular research topics, ideally tailored for the audience. As the inaugural speaker in the series I had plenty of liberty in how I approached it, and so I thought I would reflect on the ten years of my research career (since I started my PhD in 2005). In doing so, I realised that a key lesson I have learned is that there is value in abandoning the vanity of lawyers: law is not always the answer. What I mean by that is a narrow field of enquiry that focuses only on doctrinal law without taking into account the context in which it operates and perspectives from cognate disciplines that will help us to understand the content, (in)adequacies and operation of law (e.g. political science, international relations, sociology, philosophy/political theory, and psychology) can be limited and limiting.

And so, the main thrust of my argument–which I tried to illustrate by reference to the evolution of the questions I am exploring in my own work–was this:

In my experience, the questions we are really interested in often have very little to do with law inasmuch as law can merely be the medium through which we explore those questions. If this is so, then law and legal reform can provide only part of the answer(s). It is, thus, important–as early and as often as possible in research–to push oneself to ask: what am I really interested in? What perspectives do I need to be able to fully explore that question? What processes do I need to go through to answer that question and explore that interest in a way that is viable and sufficiently robust? (i.e. the methodology question). Seen this way, the value of reading in, from and with other disciplines hopefully becomes clear. So too does the fact that research is a process of constantly discovering what we do not know, realising knowledge gaps and working to fill them.

This of course raises a number of questions, many of which we discussed after and during the lecture last night. At the core of the questions in many ways were the challenges of interdisciplinarity. For me, and I am sure for many others, there are three key challenges. The first is language: unlocking the language of a particular discipline takes time and you may make mistakes at first, but you get used to the rhythms and writing conventions of other disciplines if you just stick with it. The second is avoiding the temptation to simply pick an idea up from one book or article and ‘throw it’ at your ‘legal’ problem, i.e. to play ‘pick and dip’ with another discipline. This is policed against by reading. The third is a basic epistemological challenge: how do you know when you know enough to say something meaningful? This is a challenge in all research, but having confidence that we know what we know (or that we know anything) can be especially difficult in another discipline. The only solution I have found to that is to talk to people from the other discipline: forge relationships across faculties and peer groups so that you can bounce ideas off of your colleagues. And they of course can do the same with you (the number of people across disciplines who use legal frameworks, documents and concepts in their work is really quite substantial). Cross-disciplinary intellectual relationships are, in my view, priceless in this respect. So too, it must be said, is talking to colleagues within your discipline about your research, preferably (I think) at as an early a point as possible. This can be daunting: people are often anxious about ‘making a fool of oneself’ in front of colleagues, but this very rarely happens and good colleagues will always offer their views in a spirit of robust constructiveness.

And so, the upshot of the lecture is that I thought the three keys things I would have found useful to know when I started my PhD, approaching this with the benefit of much hindsight, and which I would frame my lecture around are:

  1. Always push yourself to ask and re-ask what you’re really interested in; what your real question is;
  2. Talk about your research to colleagues in your discipline and across disciplines; get ideas, filter them judiciously, play with concepts and ideas, be willing to abandon some parts if they don’t work (and they will often end up in a later piece);
  3. Take intellectual risks: push yourself to explore everything that might help you to better see, understand and address the various contours of your problem (including not only work from other disciplines but also literature, film, good quality journalism etc).

Indeed, perhaps this isn’t advice only for new law PhDs, but rather things we should all try to bear in mind as we work…

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