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Law and the Early Career Law Teacher – Part 1

Cameron Giles, Stella Coyle, Noel McGuirk

Nov. 6, 2023


‘ECRs are characterized by their boundless energy and enthusiasm. Highly productive, ECRs are found at conferences not only giving multiple talks across sessions, but also likely co-chairing a symposium (or two). Between talks, they are submitting manuscripts and writing grant proposals (always due that week). It is rumoured that ECRs do not need sleep. With luck and perseverance, they rise to be the heroes of the most recent campaigns and studies, achieving world renown and accolades.’[1]

Whilst this tongue-in-cheek description of Early Career Researchers was published in a materials science journal, it sets out a common archetype. Whatever “success” in academia is taken to be,[2] the Early Career stage is generally seen as a critical step in academics’ professional development and professional identity formation.[3] However, the image of the young ECR attending conferences in the way Cranford humorously suggests often dominates discussion of the Early Career stage. This fails to take into account the diversity seen in academia – particularly, we would suggest, legal academia.

As Spina et al discuss, ‘academia is unique in that “entry” or “early career” positions often include a diversity of age-brackets, including older, “second-career” workers and long-term insecurely employed academics[.]’[4] The challenges of defining “early career”, including the potentially competing conceptions of the “early career researcher” and the “early career academic”, are complex. As part of our discussion of this issue, in this piece we offer some thoughts about being in the early career in contemporary UK Higher Education. In Part 2, we discuss the different “routes” through the early career stage and how these shape the construction of the Early Career Law Teacher. In Part 3, we conclude with some thoughts about the ongoing and emerging issues with career development and equality during the “early career” stage.

Early Careers in UK Higher Education

Data collected by the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency indicates that between the academic years 2014/15 and 2021/22, the most recently published data, the number of HE academic staff in Law rose from 5,335 to 7,160.[5] Although not all of the additional staff in 2021/22 will have been new to the academy – potentially including a greater proportion of academics remaining in the profession and/or those returning after a career elsewhere – this upwards trend suggest that there are significant questions to be asked about the concept of “early career” in the legal academy in the 2020s. These questions are compounded by the ongoing context and consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of which on Higher Education is perhaps not yet fully understood, but which is likely to have been experienced differently on the basis of factors such as socio-economic status and gender.[6]

The different experiences of early career academics during the COVID pandemic serve to demonstrate the diversity of both early career academic roles and those in those roles. As Jackman et al. observe in the context of UK doctoral and ECR academics, with the imposition of national lockdowns in 2020 ‘the increased time required to manage the sudden move to online teaching reduced time available for research[.]’[7] Unlike academics in STEM and related fields,[8] many legal academics were not dependent on access to dedicated research spaces or labs in order to conduct research. However, even those whose workloads were not shaped by greater teaching demands may have found that the working environment, in which ‘the taken-for-granted human contact which is vital for our thinking and being’ was lost,[9] had a significant impact on their work.

As Fox and Mazhar note, the pandemic also deepened the financial precarity many law PGRs experience, which continues to be a concern during the cost-of-living crisis, and which, they argue, requires greater recognition and involvement of PGRs in the context of legal education.[10] The changing position of Early Career academics in UK Higher Education is perhaps vividly demonstrated when considering how teaching and research interact within the early career identity – and how this has changed over recent years.

Jordan and Howe suggest that the increasingly neo-liberalised attitude to Higher Education and the introduction of the RAE (the precursor to REF) contributed to teaching capacity issues in the 1990s, which increased reliance on early career members of staff.[11] As the RAE evolved,[12] changes to submission requirements also gradually ‘meant that [staff] no longer had a free choice to see their main role either as researchers or as scholars and teachers’.[13] In the era of REF, Ball, Joyce and Mills argue that Law Schools in the UK, in responding to similar pressures turned increasingly to Postgraduate Research students to provide Undergraduate teaching.[14]

Early Career … [Insert Here]

In the excerpt from Cranford which began this piece, the discussion focuses on the Early Career Researcher, however, in the context of Early Careers in legal academia this understates the role of teaching. In addition to the activities Cranford describes, the ECR at a conference is may also be marking scripts, planning a seminar, or reading up on an unfamiliar area of law. Whilst teaching may not take up the majority of an ECR’s time, their teaching makes up an increasing proportion of the overall teaching work done at many institutions.[15] However, this, still, may be an oversimplification – an early career in legal academia might coexist with a continuation of practice as a legal practitioner (potentially with additional responsibilities in a Law School Clinic); research work in a non-HE setting; or other legal or non-legal employment.

We would suggest the need to apply a broad mindset to the “early career” label, recognising that the challenges those who identify themselves within an early career stage share many commonalities but equally as many individual complexities. Elton, quoted above, suggests that the context of UK Higher Education creates additional pressures which may shape the identities of staff.[16] This is also true of the early career stage – something which needs to be examined when looking at the journeys made during this stage, towards the “mid-career” stage or beyond.

To be continued in Part 2.

Cameron, Stella and Noel hosted the first Early Career Online Hangout on Wednesday, October 25th 2023 at 1-2pm. If you would like to attend future hangouts, please email Cameron ( or get in touch via LinkedIn to be added to the invite.

[1] Steve Cranford, ‘Academic Rogues, Wizards, And… Early Career Researchers?’ (2023) 6 Matter 297, 298.

[2] See, Kathryn A Sutherland, ‘Constructions of Success in Academia: An Early Career Perspective’ [2015] Studies in Higher Education 1.

[3] See, e.g., Hazel Ferguson and Katherine L Wheat, ‘Early Career Academic Mentoring Using Twitter: The Case of #ECRchat’ (2015) 37 Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 3; Carles Monereo and Eva Liesa, ‘Early Career Researchers’ Identity Positions Based on Research Experiences’ (2022) 41 Higher Education Research & Development 193.

[4] Nerida Spina and others, ‘Back to Zero? Precarious Employment in Academia amongst “Older” Early Career Researchers, a Life-Course Approach’ (2022) 43 British Journal of Sociology of Education 534, 544.

[5] Higher Education Statistics Agency, ‘HE Academic Staff (Excluding Atypicals) by Cost Centre, Age Group, Source of Basic Salary, Mode of Employment and Academic Year’ (DT025 Table 21, Higher Education Statistics Agency 2023) <> accessed 13 June 2023.

[6] Canan Neşe Kınıkoğlu and Aysegul Can, ‘Negotiating the Different Degrees of Precarity in the UK Academia during the Covid-19 Pandemic’ (2021) 23 European Societies S817.

[7] Patricia C Jackman and others, ‘The Impact of the First COVID-19 Lockdown in the UK for Doctoral and Early Career Researchers’ (2022) 84 Higher Education 705, 711.

[8] ibid 712.

[9] Grace Gao and Linna Sai, ‘Towards a “Virtual” World: Social Isolation and Struggles during the COVID-19 Pandemic as Single Women Living Alone’ (2020) 27 Gender, Work & Organization 754, 756.

[10] Rosie Fox and Aysha Mazhar, ‘Law Postgraduate Researchers and the Cost-of-Living Crisis: An Intervention’ (2023) 57 The Law Teacher 364.

[11] Katy Jordan and Christine Howe, ‘The Perceived Benefits and Problems Associated with Teaching Activities Undertaken by Doctoral Students’ (2018) 23 Teaching in Higher Education 504, 504-505.

[12] Katharine Barker, ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise: The Evolution of a National Research Evaluation System’ (2007) 16 Research Evaluation 3.

[13] Lewis Elton, ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise: Unintended Consequences’ (2000) 54 Higher Education Quarterly 274, 276.

[14] Victoria Ball, Arwen Joyce and Charlotte Mills, ‘“They Just Have More of a Vibe of Being ‘One of Us’”: Undergraduate Law Student Perceptions of PhD Tutors’ (2020) 54 The Law Teacher 327, 328. For discussion of this in a different field, see, Jordan and Howe (n 2).

[15] Alastair Hudson, ‘Two Futures for Law Schools’ (2021) 55 The Law Teacher 101.

[16] Lewis Elton, ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise: Unintended Consequences’ (2000) 54 Higher Education Quarterly 274, 276.


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