In Conversation with Alan East, Law Lecturer

I wanted to find research from talking to lecturers directly, learning about their jobs and experiences. Here is my interview with Alan…

J: So what does your job entail?

A: So my job is pretty diverse, lots of different things actually. Ultimately, first of all looking after students and their interests and go to lectures, lecturing them, doing seminars.

So dealing with the students and their sort of learning journey, in addition to that we’re expected to do research as well which can be anything really. From going out into the community and building a rapport with the community, doing some work as a lawyer and the law school is working with law firms to help students get places.

We’ll go out finding money to bring into the uni through bids etc as well as going around doing conferences and just sharing information, talking about law in general.

J: Did you have any other jobs before?

A: Before this I was a practising solicitor, primarily in criminal defence litigation so representing people accused of offences, in the police station, courts and just going through that process with them.

J: So did that job and other experiences help you get to where you are now?

A: Yeah, it’s all sort of a journey really. Having done that it gave me the sort of experience to be able to come here where students in the law school want to be solicitors and we’re representing some experiences in doing that is good. You get to train students and make them more employable by giving them extra types of work to do. We do a lot of legal skills, not just pure academic, so interviewing and negotiations, things like that. My experiences have helped shape the way I run sessions definitely.

J: What were the qualities that helped you get your job currently?

A: The specifications are that we can work independently, we’re expected to work on our own and prepare our own sessions, research everything but then also to work as part of a team , have good communication skills, they’re the main points. From that you can go into quite a bit of detail but those are the main areas.

J: Do you feel like grades are the most important thing or would there be any other factors that contribute to getting jobs?

A: Yes grades are important, but as I was saying to a student yesterday, you can come out with a First class degree in Law but that won’t get you a training contract if you want to become a solicitor, because most law firms are looking for experience as well. So I try and tell students you need experience as well, not just a good class classification. Once upon a time it was essential, it is important but you can’t just rely on that. Basically if you go and get a training contract as a solicitor, the law firm will want you to make money for them so they want someone who can come in and do the work straight away, someone with experience. It’s important they do that as well as get their grades.

J: Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m encouraged to do in my department, to find jobs and experience. I think currently, if you’ve got experience doing things, that’s possibly more valuable than a piece of paper.

A: Yeah definitely, it can be actually. There are lots of people coming out with Firsts now in Law, the practitioners in a firm will want someone with experience. They might take someone with a 2:1 with lots of experience because as you said, a piece of paper is one thing but experience is valued. Ultimately they want someone who will make money for them so it’s all very well taking on a cool academic but they have no practical experience. They might actually be a little bit lost in a law firm.

J: How hard did you have to work at university to get your job?

A: I was at Coventry University between 1997-2000 and I had to work fairly hard. Law’s very competitive, back then nobody got Firsts, back then the First was a 2:1. Whereas nowadays people are getting Firsts so for me a 2:1 is like getting a First so I had to work extremely hard to sort of put myself above the rest of the competition. Yeah I would always spend time at the library, unfortunately we didn’t have Locate and internet sources back then. So if I wanted to find a case or a judgement of a court, I’d have to go to the library so I was always over there. Nowadays the students have it really easy, got it on their fingertips, they can print things off.

J: From my experiences in my course, I’m in second year and we’ve had quite a few people drop out from first year. Do you feel like if someone has the ambition to get somewhere, but they don’t have the drive in order to realise how much work they need to do then they won’t do it?

A: I think this is something to do with the time we’re in, I’m not sure what happens at the schools, whether they just want people to pass exams so they give them as much guidance as possible. What we find is students come here, they’re not able to motivate themselves as well, perhaps in my opinion. I think they think that they’re paying for the degree they’re just going to get it. We’ve had a huge drop out of students going from second to third year, about 50, that’s a lot. I’m sure they’re all capable of doing it, they wouldn’t have got on the course otherwise, but I think some people become slightly lazy and we really need to instil it in them during first year, how important it is to engage. Once they’ve got their initial few weeks out the way.

J: People make the assumptions that they’re on the course and having the lectures, that is the only time they’re in and that is the only work they have to do but in fact there’s loads more work you have to do outside of uni.

A: That’s it, and I think they blame the lecturers if they don’t get the results. They seem to think we can give them the knowledge that will pass the exam, but learning is about you going away and doing that extra work. The lectures are short anyway, even if they’re 2 hours, there’s only so much I can cover in their syllabus in an hour. Seminars work on the basis that students go away, prepare and if they don’t prepare they get nothing out of them. We encourage them to do lots and lots of reading, I don’t think they do and it shows when they do their exams. And yet they come to you and say I don’t agree with the marking, I would never have done that it my day, said that to a tutor. Because they want that First, and they think that it’s attainable because they’re paying for a degree.

Frankly, only about 10% will ever get that anyway. And that is the 10% that work extremely hard, because you can’t get a First just by being clever.

J: Do you think that there has to be something out there, because that’s what I want to achieve from the project, show people who have done the hard work and showing where they’ve got now. I kind of want it to motivate people to realise ‘oh this is what they did, I need to do the same thing’.

A: Yeah I’m quite harsh with them when they come in, if they haven’t prepared we will sort of come down on them slightly because if you become a solicitor or barrister, which ultimately about 70% want to do that, you’re going to get nowhere in life without that drive because when you represent a client, it’s just you, there is nobody who is going to help you. And yet there’s too much emphasis throughout the years on giving students guidance, I had a student say to me the other day in an email ‘if I submit a coursework prior to the submission date, will you go through it and tell me how to improve’. Well no, because that’s me then doing it for you, I know that does happen. But I want to see what you’re capable of doing and then I can tell you how to improve for future occasions. Some people haven’t got the aptitude for it, unfortunately as an institution I think we’re a little bit scared to tell them that because we should give everyone an opportunity to learn, but sometimes, particularly in Law.

J: Do you think that’s something to do with the development in technology that people have things that they can access that they wouldn’t before? So they feel like there’s so much out there, they already know it, it’s easier.

A: Google is a problem, only yesterday in a seminar, I overheard a student say ‘I googled’, when they shouldn’t be googling anything. In Law, there are legal resources you can go to and put the term in that search engine which is specifically a legal resource. Yeah I think because they have information at their fingertips, they suddenly know what they’re doing but Law is difficult because you can get a statute within a few seconds on a computer or on your phone. But you need to learn how to analyse and interpret that, you need to have the overall knowledge and that doesn’t come with just reading it. That comes with years of experience. I think sometimes they just expect to do really well because they have a lot of help with technology but it doesn’t work like that. Technology is great, it gives them access to this information quickly but they don’t tend to use it, it’s crazy. Everything is in bite size information, like in a text message, we don’t write letters anymore. In law we have to write letters, you have to write letters or nice long emails but we cut corners now, maybe that’s the problem.

J: Yeah, I think something that’s made easier from technology is not easy enough, you have to shortcut it and make it even easier. Because that access is there, people think oh well because it’s easier than something that’s a little less easy then I’m just going to use the easy option.

A: They do. I think the major problem comes during the school period. I’ve got no physical evidence of that, it’s just my opinion but I just think that with the national curriculum it’s about statistics and they want everybody to do well. So I think the teachers more or less groom them to do well, in the sort of sense that they give them so much guidance. And when it comes to degree level, they expect guidance so you always get students saying are we having guidance on this coursework. And frankly,

I don’t see why they should. I do give them guidance because I’m expected to serve their student satisfaction but they should really have it. Because when you go into legal practice, nobody gives you guidance, you are on your own and your client relies on you, you might have your colleagues to talk to but they’ve got their own cases to deal with. It’s ultimately you, so if we give them too much guidance they won’t be able to go ahead in the future and work effectively. I think you can have a little bit of guidance but you should be going away and learning for yourself, you should organically be able to do this. Otherwise you’re not going to make a good lawyer. If they just went away and read legal sources and articles, and what other lawyers say about things, it would just slot into place for them. But they’ve got to go ahead and read. I had a student say to me yesterday in a seminar, in trying to make an excuse to why he didn’t prepare, he said ‘I had Saturday morning set aside to do this but I couldn’t because some issue took place, and I didn’t have time another time.’ It was just a poor excuse, you’ve got to make time in that sort of schedule and prioritise.

J: What would you say to someone who dreams of getting such a prestigious and academic job at university right now, in order to inspire them?

A: for that, they’re going to need to get a PhD I think, I mean if I wanted to move from here to one of the sort of ‘red bricks’, I’d need a PhD. But really, it’s good to have a dream because obviously I think a lot of people can achieve it if they put their mind to it. But in order to do that, they’re going to have to really really work hard and put every effort into doing that. So they need to get their PhD, they need to do something they really enjoy to be successful in that, because you’re on your own in that, nobody gives you any guidance there. You need to self-motivate, and I think the problem I’ve got with my PhD, is that I’m not now interested in it, I’ve chosen a subject and now I want to do something entirely different, but it’s too late so you need to be sure and just have passion for it. That going to engage you and if you’re engaged you’re going to do well, and I’m certain of that.

J: What would you say is the most important thing about university? Would it be studying, gaining experiences or making contacts?

A: Well I think actually, every one of those combined is important. If you isolate it to just one thing, you’re going to miss out. Put it into context with students wanting to becomes lawyers, they’ve got to obviously got to do very well in their academic degree, but that isn’t enough. They need to socialise, meet other people so you know, even if they socialise with their peers, they might meet someone whose father is a solicitor. Or they’ve got to go out into the real world to get experience because that’s how they’ll get references, that’s how they’ll get the experience for their CV and possibly how they’ll meet people and get jobs in the future. So they’ve got to everything. They’ve got to engage in their university experience, if they don’t then someone else will do it and they’ll lose out to them. Going to university is not just about study, why don’t they get involved with local societies, put themselves forward for ambassadors, it’s all good for their CV, it’s all good life experience. Ultimately, employers want people with a range of experience I think.

J: What would you say would have been the most important thing for you in university?

A: Oh goodness. I mean for me, back then, I didn’t engage in any of the extra curricular activities. I’m from Coventry so I effectively came and did my studies and went home. So I didn’t really meet many

people apart from a girl who went to my school and we kind of gravitated towards one another on the first day, and then we never really met anyone else so I sort of lost out on that experience. But I was quite lucky in any lengths because my mum worked in a legal profession so it was fine. But had she not done that, I would have lost out by not meeting other people and having the social experience at Coventry. Back then it didn’t have all of this, back in ’97 the university was very different, not like it is now. So maybe if I was a student now I would engage more, I think I lost out on the social element and I didn’t get enough experience in different things because apparently when I was a student the Law School had a legal clinic but I didn’t know. I would have loved to have done that. All I did was just study, so I missed out to a certain extent. I did engage however, when I went away from home to do my postgrad course to become a solicitor down in Guildford. So maybe it was living in Coventry, I didn’t feel the need to engage. Going away from home sort of forces you to engage with people otherwise you become a bit of a loner, which I’m not good at being.

J: Would you say that the facilities or the drive from the university to get you to engage and to get you doing experiences, would you say it wasn’t there back then?

A: It would probably be wrong to say that it wasn’t there at all but things have certainly changed. And here now the management are far more creative and forward thinking than back then , definitely. I mean certainly since we had Madeline as the Vice Chancellor this university transformed 8 years ago. When I was here, there certainly wasn’t the breadth of experience in the Law School to push you forward into the profession, there is now. So the university has changed a lot, it’s more student focused, wanting students to be satisfied with everything and about employability. So we have our own employability person now, they didn’t have one in my day. Back in my day, you only ever really saw your lecturers in the lectures or seminar and there was never any chance to see them outside that to be fair. But now of course there are all sorts of opportunities.

J: Yeah, I suppose that’s what is so important about Coventry and the way that it’s moving forward. It listens to the students, I heard from someone on the third floor of the library yesterday with the new development of the structure of disruptive media saying that in Birmingham and Warwick, they don’t really have the ambition to move forward.

A: Yeah they’re old fashioned, they still think they’re the greatest universities and they don’t need to but the world has changed and we’re going to take over one day. We’re the best post modern university, and we’re the best for student satisfaction and we’re 27th in one of the league tables so those sorts of universities that go by reputation will need to change. Particularly now people are paying more for their degree, they want to get something out of it, so maybe we’ll start to take their students away from them in the future. I mean the disruptive media is run by the lady who is my supervisor on PhD so I’m going to be there quite a bit. It’s a good vision forward, one of the Deputy Vice Chancellors ideas and he’s created it, it’s fantastic, there’s Macs all over the place. It’s a really good space to learn and if people are enjoying the area they’re learning in then it’s even better.

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