Multidisciplinary Understandings of Legal Academia

Nicky Priaulx received funding from the British Academy Small Grants Award scheme for a project entitled ‘Multidisciplinary Understandings of Legal Academia’ which ran from 2015-2017. Working with Dr Martin Weinel and Willow Leonard-Clarke (SOCSI), this project investigated how other disciplinary actors conceptualise the usefulness, skills and expertise of legal academics and their attitudes about and insights into legal academia. The project surveyed the attitudes and opinions of non-legal academics in order to start mapping how legal academia is understood. Such work sought to provide a critical foundation for identifying how legal academia is understood and how to develop strategies for creating bridges between different disciplines.  During the course of the project, we ran two main events. The first was a workshop at Cardiff University in June 2017 entitled ‘The Future of Legal Academia’ and a sciSCREEN public engagement event which highlighted the importance of collaborative interdisciplinarity work with an expert line-up to showcase the diverse work at Cardiff University and its relevance to contemporary social issues. We have also presented aspects of our findings at several conferences and workshops in the UK, as well as Internationally. Nicky is currently writing up a series of publications relating to the project. 

Want to read more about this project? We have a dedicated website for this project which provides more a more detailed and accessible presentation of our findings. You will also find a number of working papers there.

Programme of Research  The project sought to explore how actors across a range of academic fields understand, value and engage with the work of legal academics. How do other disciplinary actors conceptualise the usefulness, skills and expertise of the legal academic and the theoretical and practical relevance of ‘law’ for their own work? What do other disciplinary actors know about law and legal scholarship? This project sought to survey knowledge, attitudes and opinions of non-legal academics. Such work sought to provide a critical foundation for identifying how legal academia is understood, and for developing strategies for creating bridges between law and other disciplines.

Novelty of the Work This project sought to investigate how other disciplines perceive the legal academy and what insight scholars from other fields have into the field of legal academia.  This has not, despite Becher’s (1981) fascinating exploration of disciplinary cultures in the US and UK, been subjected to sustained analysis, nor has it been investigated by the legal academy. The current project sought to address this gap in the research literature. Insofar as lawyers, lawyering or the legal environment constitute interesting research subjects for other disciplines, whether the social sciences, political science, history, science and technology studies or literature, these tend to centralise “pop law” and speak to more professionalised concerns such as advocacy, judging, juries – very often law as it happens within adversarial settings such as the courtroom (Jasanoff 1992). Nevertheless, little, if any of this work tells us about attitudes of non-legal disciplinary actors to the legal academy, or the views such actors hold about the purchase and value of the work undertaken within it. A growing body of literature highlights the critical importance of interdisciplinarity and collaborative work. for law and justice, as well as for developing novel and path-breaking research capable of addressing contemporary social and global challenges. The issue has become more pressing in recent years due to the growth of scientific and technological innovation which draws into the adjudicative, legislative and policy realms areas of great scientific complexity, for which legal training, in and of itself, proves insufficient (Weinel and Priaulx, 2014; Vick 2004; Schrama 2011).

Theoretical Backdrop: While our study has incorporated a voluminous body of literature around interdisciplinarity and collaboration, we also draw upon a range of theoretical frameworks relating to the studies of expertise and insight. A range of work, including scholarship highlighted above, details the significant barriers and obstacles in lawyers ‘understanding’ other disciplines (ones often emerging within legal settings) and the problems that can result. The same dangers confront nonlegal disciplinary actors whose work engages with or is ‘dropped into’ law. Disciplines are akin to foreign cultures, with different languages, norms and forms of life, and actors become disciplined and acquire the tacit knowledge inhabiting their fields by virtue of social immersion. It is socialisation within the expert domain which provides the ‘deep understanding’ to be able to ‘know what one is talking about’ (Collins and Evans, 2007); the logical corollary of this, is that a lack of socialisation within target disciplines results in the absence of a deep appreciation of what is going on in other fields. Yet for the delivery of robust policy relevant research, as well as an appreciation of what occurs within legal academia, that interaction between disciplines proves critical. This study constitutes a critical first step to evaluating from a multidisciplinary perspective, insight and understanding into the legal discipline. We also regarded the question of insight and attitudes as important in addressing the earliest point of ‘collaborative mapping’ – if one has no insight into another discipline (or holds false preconceptions about another discipline), this is likely to result in scholars either excluding or overlooking that discipline at the point of constructing a collaborative project, and selecting specialist actors as collaborative partners.

We also drew extensively on far broader literary and popular media sources to evaluate the terrain. Our study explored how non-legal academics at Cardiff University perceived the discipline of law and legal academics. From our broader research we are aware that legal academics feature rarely in popular culture (TV, films, literature) and when they do, these typically portray legal academics as largely vocational in orientation, with a strong emphasis upon cases, statutes and “law in the books”. By contrast, law as a ‘professional’ and ‘vocational’ pursuit is a very popular area for film, drama and literature. In similar force, the absence of legal academics is also repeated in non-legal scholarship; we rarely see legal academics constituting the focus of non-legal research. This, combined with what legal scholars have noted – that legal academia has failed to highlight what legal academia is about, or what legal academics do, might well mean that the kinds of ideas that those outside of the law school hold very particular ideas about legal academia and legal academics: based upon ideals of the practising lawyer, obsessed with rules, whose work pivots around training future lawyers, and of a discipline that appears less than ‘academic’.  Scholarship within the field of legal studies highlights the presence of the view that this is how non-legal academics are likely to regard the discipline of law; the overwhelming view of legal scholars in terms of how they imagine “others”, is that non-lawyers are likely to see the field of legal academia as boring, unacademic, unintellectual, vocationally orientated and obsessed with describing ‘rules’ (what is known as a ‘black-letter law’ approach). In turn, the way that legal scholars imagine others will see them in terms of personality attributes also paints a pessimistic picture bullish, dominant, physically and intellectually isolated – a bit of a lone wolf. In turn, in respect of the legal academy, there have long been questions about what kinds of approaches now typify this (arguably diverse) field, with some calling for a more social scientific approach and one that investigates the ‘real world’ using empirical approaches.

Our Study Directed with the aim of exploring how to build bridges between different disciplines and to enhance academics’ ability to collaborate with each other, we sought to explore three potentially interlinked factors – (1) insight into, and (2) attitudes towards the field of law, and (2) interaction with legal scholars.

We wanted to investigate the extent to which non-legal academics possess insight (cognition) into the discipline of law, the kinds of research approaches legal academics pursue, and the kinds of activities and outputs that would be considered highly prestigious in research terms. We hypothesised that those with higher levels of interaction with legal academics in practice, would possess a stronger insight into the discipline as a whole and potentially more favourable attitudes towards legal academia/academics.

Using on online survey at Cardiff University, we ran 4 surveys in 2016 and 2017, with two directed at non-legal academics, and two very similar surveys for legal academics as our benchmark for evaluating the responses of non-legal academics. We asked all non-legal academic survey participants to make assessments of how they would characterise the discipline of law, what kinds of personality traits they believed legal academics might possess, the kinds of research approaches and nature of research they thought legal academics were engaged in, and we also asked them to rank a series of research outputs and activities (including a ‘trick’ item) in terms of relative prestige.

Our Findings

  • Portrayals of the Field of Legal Academia Across the board we found that non-legal academics at Cardiff University tend to have a  favourable view of the discipline of law – regarding it as more ‘academic’ than ‘vocational’ and seeing it as ‘interesting’. By contrast, academic lawyers are extremely pessimistic when it comes to imagining how others might see their field – imagining that others will regard the discipline of law as arcane, uncreative, unscientific, unapplied, impractical, vocationally-orientated, as less academic, boring and very highly reliant on documents. When it comes to personality traits, legal academics do not see themselves as dominant – and certainly not aggressive. We also found that interaction with legal academics makes a difference – those that often interact with legal academics are more likely to regard them as warm, low in dominance with a tendency towards co-operation. In contrast, those who never interact with legal academics imagine that they will be more dominant in personality.
  • Beliefs or Insight into different approaches to Legal Research In terms of approaches to legal research, academic lawyers depict their research as drawing on a wide range of approaches – as ‘mixed’, rather than dominated by purely theoretical approaches or purely descriptive or vocational approaches. Such a finding supports what theorists in the field have suggested might be the case – a shift from a largely ‘black-letter law’ (e.g. doctrinal, descriptive, vocational orientation) towards one that is more diverse in practice, drawing on techniques associated with ‘socio-legal studies’, including more theoretically and/or empirically informed work (Cownie, 2004). In practice, many academic lawyers emphasised the significance of most approaches to research – descriptive, vocational, empirical, theoretical, and the investigation of social phenomena. From the perspectives of our survey respondents, all of these approaches have a place within the legal academy. Moreover, while Cardiff University Law may be atypical, we saw a high proportion of academic lawyers who reported deploying empirical approaches, which suggests that calls in the past for legal studies to embrace more empirical approaches (Genn et al, 2007), is now being met in practice. In respect of how non-legal academics viewed legal academic research approaches, most did not see legal academia as purely descriptive/vocational – the depiction that some legal scholars had suggested was likely to be the case. Most regarded the kind of research work that academic lawyers do as deploying mixed approaches. This stands in stark contrast with how legal academics themselves have speculated that others will regard the discipline of law.
  • Legal Academics – Collaborative or Lone Wolves? While some have remarked within legal academia that the field is typified by the paradigm of the lone researcher, and previous studies have highlighted that this may be how others regard legal academics as ‘distant and alien’ or ‘separate from other disciplines’ (Becher, 1989), our survey suggested that legal academics are generally not seen as ‘lone wolves’ or distant and alien. Those that collaborate highly with legal academics regarded them as far more collaborative in practice – even more highly than legal academics regarded themselves. And in practice, while legal academics reported a slight tendency towards lone scholarship, few positioned themselves in the lone wolf category. Instead what we see is a mixture of lone scholarship and collaboration in practice – a profile that highlights that both are important in the modern academic, and one that is fairly typical of the social sciences where single authorship remains highly prevalent. Moreover, what we see in respect of the broader data is that lawyers are highly collaborative in practice, with a significant number engaging with non-legal academics in respect of their work, and a high level of interdisciplinary engagement in practice. However, and consistent with the literature, at Cardiff, of those responding to the survey, a comparatively small population of non-lawyers turn to collaborate with legal academics.
  • Does Interaction with Legal Academics Make a Difference to Insight or Attitudes? We found across the course of our survey strong indications that the more non-legal academics interact with legal academics, and particularly in research/teaching contexts, the better they were able to anticipate the kinds of research norms of the field of law. While most non-legal academics were fooled by a trick question on items of research prestige (an item which does not currently count as an item of research prestige: “successful litigation of a case”) – one that all legal academics could call out – those that interacted highly with legal academics rated the trick item very lowly, nearly mirroring the ranking of legal academics. We also found that those that interacted to a higher degree with legal academics, particularly in collaborative teaching and research contexts, tended to view legal academia even more favourably than other non-legal academics; moreover their assessments of legal research approaches and research prestige markers were far more strongly in line with the responses provided by legal academics themselves. Non-legal academics’ evaluations of the research approaches that legal academics might take consistently moved more closely in line with legal academics’ own evaluations of the field the more that non-legal academics interacted with legal academics.
  • Limitations: As a small scale study conducted in one University, the survey findings need to be treated with caution. Such a survey does not tell us what people ‘really’ think, nor indeed does it tell us that even the highest interactors with legal academics possess a strong understanding of the field (they may, but we did not make such an enquiry). While we have surveyed non-legal academics about a range of items relating to legal academia, we note that none of these items that we quizzed non-legal academics about really require ‘deep understanding’ or even a low level of literacy about the substantive concerns that occupy the minds of legal academics. As such, a different study might highlight far less working knowledge in practice. Nevertheless, the overarching significance of our findings is that on this survey at least, we have a strong indication that higher levels of interaction in teaching/research contexts makes a difference to people’s perception of the field of legal academia.
  • Some take homes: The overarching significance of our findings is that on this survey at least, we have a strong indication that higher levels of interaction in teaching/research contexts makes a difference to people’s perception of the field of legal academia. Moreover, while legal academics are highly pessimistic about how their academic peers might regard them, these findings provide some good news – other disciplines are far more upbeat about legal academia than legal academics expected. On the other hand, what the survey also suggests is that more work needs to be done if these survey indications are generalisable, in light of a fairly low incidence across this sample (a total of 131 non-legal academics) of academics who do interact with legal academics in practice.
  • Taking this forward: There is great value to this research and the findings in many respects have surprised us – our aspiration is to build now upon this work – and to more deeply explore what people know, their attitudes towards other fields and the extent to which both cognition in respect of other fields, and attitudes to other specialisms, has an impact on the emergence of collaboration across disciplines and boundaries. In particular, we also wish to now investigate the extent to which basic academic literacy into other fields could prove essential or useful as a platform for prospective collaboration. For this, we suspect that far more in the way of understanding about what legal academics do, the relevancy of their approaches and skills, may be needed in order to foster the kind of ‘academic literacy’ that is needed to more strongly foster collaboration between disciplines.