Yvonne Evans is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Dundee. Before she became a full-time academic, she was an Associate in the Private Client team at a large Scottish firm.
I’m sometimes asked how I made the jump from practice to academia, without doing a PhD. I wanted to share my story and give some practical tips for anyone considering a teaching career.
Why the career change?
When I saw the job advertised in the Scottish Legal News, I dismissed it. I loved teaching, having started tutoring while I was a Diploma student. But I didn’t want to move cities, the salary was lower, and it seemed a leap into the unknown. Fast forward a week, and I was having a fateful conversation with HR about my future at the firm. Redundancy was the push I needed; I had nothing to lose. The presentation and interviews were tough and I was amazed to succeed. Even so, as I packed up, let out my flat and moved up to Dundee, I expected it would be a temporary change and that I’d return to practice after a year or so.
What’s so great about it?
For me, the students. Anyone who teaches will know the rewarding feeling when your students master some tricky concept. It’s fun to share what you’re enthusiastic about, and you can be creative in how and what you teach. I teach the full range from pre-S6 summer school up to Diploma and LLM. I enjoy the pastoral role and seeing that huge personal development from schoolkids through to young professionals. My first graduation ceremony was pure job satisfaction, and I knew then I wasn’t going to return to practice. I like the predictable rhythm of the normal university year (but no, I don’t have all summer “off”!).
What are the challenges of working in higher education?
Much as I prefer this job, it’s not an easy option. You really need to be passionate about it, because you will often work long hours marking and preparing teaching or meeting writing deadlines. I also have a lot of administrative responsibilities, e.g. I’m in charge of LLB admissions, widening access and chair exam boards. I serve on Senate and university appeals panels and act as External Examiner at other institutions. Obviously 2020/21 has been very intense as we adapt to online teaching and assessment and work hard to support students.
Do you need a PhD?
Most academic contracts are “teaching and research”, and require a PhD “or equivalent”, but there are solicitors who have become very successful researchers, even professors, without a PhD. My contract is a “teaching and scholarship” type, so my role is teaching-oriented, rather than research-focused. This form of contract goes in and out of fashion around the Research Excellence Framework cycle. Whilst it relieves pressure to publish, there can be a more obscure path to promotion for T&S staff. Those of us coming from practice have a lot to offer in teaching vocational skills, especially as “employability” becomes a focus in universities.
Do you have to be seriously intellectual/ “academic” to be a lecturer?
Here comes the impostor syndrome… I wasn’t the brightest in my year at law school, and in fact suffered mental health issues which probably stopped me performing to my full ability. I was the first person in my family to go to university and was desperate to get out and start earning money. It wasn’t until my traineeship that I was sure that private client work was my “thing”. Once qualified, I sat STEP exams and my expertise in trusts and tax planning grew over the next five years in practice. I was writing articles for journals and newspapers, presenting CPD seminars and drafting expert opinions. All of these helped my transition to academia.
Tips for a would-be lecturer
Universities look for teaching experience and research/scholarship potential. Law schools recruit tutors for Diploma and some LLB courses, so contact them before the new academic year. Giving CPD presentations/webinars is good practice for lecturing. You will often find community or special interest groups would welcome guest speakers. Mentoring trainees is also useful experience.
Having some published work is important, especially for research contracts. Contact editors of journals and pitch ideas. Writing for newspapers and other media is a good way to show you can communicate complex ideas to different audiences. Engage with Scottish Government/Scottish Law Commission consultations on law reform. Join a Law Society policy or education committee or get involved in professional groups related to your specialism. All of these provide useful CPD credit and show a commitment to legal scholarship.
Some useful links
Association of Law Teachers (open to lawyers who teach).