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Commercial lawyer stays at university

Despite a strong interest in commercial law, Dr Sandra Frisby decided not to head off to the City on graduation. Instead she focused on what she enjoys most about the law i.e. researching and teaching it. In 2000 she completed her Ph.D. on “The Law and Practice of Contractual Receivership”. She now specialises in commercial, company and corporate insolvency law and is the “Baker & McKenzie Lecturer in Company and Commercial Law” at the University of Nottingham. We asked her about life as an academic lawyer.

mtl: Hi Sandra, why did you decide not to qualify?

Sandra: I never had any serious idea of going into practice. After a few months of my first year, I realised that I enjoyed poking around in the law and didn’t want to stop studying it after only 3 yrs. I found that I was more interested in academia and investigating things that interested me personally, rather than having to act on a client’s instructions. This intellectual curiosity led me to study a Ph.D when I graduated.

In the final year of my Ph.D., I began teaching at the University of Nottingham. It had occurred to me that it would be enjoyable to lecture as you are basically passing on your own ideas - I found the idea of teaching an area that I was researching very attractive. Academia is very much a balance between research and teaching, which go hand in hand, and some inevitable administrative work, such as dealing with exams.

mtl: Tell us about the working week of an academic lawyer…

Sandra: It depends on the stage of the year. During term time there will usually be some teaching on any given day. At the beginning of term there will be lots of teaching preparation including updating recent law in lecture notes and handouts. Further into term there will be tutorials to prepare, carry out and evaluate. Between this you do your own research, depending on what project you are working on at the time.

At the moment I am conducting two large empirical projects sponsored by the Insolvency Service. I write a lot about insolvency law and had a nagging feeling that I didn’t know enough about practice. I have looked at 2000 cases and interviewed bankers and insolvency practitioners to find out about the effect of the Enterprise Act 2002 in practice and at what happens to companies that are sold during the various stages of insolvency. This means I am often out and about talking to people who aren’t interested in the academic side of insolvency, but are experts in practice. The idea is that I am rephrasing current scholarship around practice.

Research is my big love - I never get bored of it and it keeps my mind active. On the teaching side, it is great at the end of the year to know that I have made a difference to students. I was awarded a “national law teacher of the year” prize by the Association of Law Teachers this year - it was very flattering to have been nominated by the School and for it to have been recognised by the university. I also love lecturing because it is basically just standing up in front of lots of people and showing off. Academics like an audience!

The least attractive side to the job is dealing with the paperwork and the quality assurance aspects, which we have to keep on top of. For example, organising a re-sit involves paperwork in triplicate and is time consuming. There are times when I would rather be doing something else but, like any job, the admin has to be done.

mtl: What sort of person do you think academia would appeal to?

Sandra: You would have to be quite independent and would have to want to do your own thing professionally. Going into practice means that what you do is dictated by the client’s needs. In contrast, an academic chooses what areas to look at, so you would have to be curious and want to investigate your area of interest. I really enjoy this freedom…

You would also have to be outgoing, as you are always dealing with students and you have to be able to communicate and get on with them in a way that they can respond to. You need to retain a feel for the student lifestyle and go into it knowing that you will have to teach a lot, so you should have an attraction to that. Shrinking violets need not apply!

You also need a certain level of organisational skills and the ability to be methodical as you can’t get away with being the proverbial scatty academic. You can’t be particularly motivated by a huge salary because if you want to earn a lot of money, you should be in private practice. Having said that, academics can and do make a comfortable living. You can also enter into agreements with publishing houses (e.g. I write for Palmer’s Company Law) to supplement your income.

mtl: Would a practising lawyer be able to make the switch to academia?

Sandra: Absolutely! City experience is great but you would also have to demonstrate that you have plans for research and teaching and that you are committed to building up a profile in a specified area. You will effectively be saying that you will be productive in those two areas.

If you have never done either then you would have to convince an institution that you have projects to work on and show how you plan to go about them. The way to do it would be to approach institutions that you are interested in and say that you want to switch to academia. Any decent institution would give you advice about how to go about it and what route to take, and would indeed encourage such a query. It may mean further study before you would be eligible to apply for a position.

In terms of how to secure a lecturing position, it is sometimes harder to apply around the time of a Research Assessment Exercise (REA) as this would put you up against current Ph.D. students. Academics are normally about to finish their studying when applying for jobs, or at least have the potential to produce publications in the future. The hurdles would be lower at the beginning of a cycle.

Teaching records help but aren’t essential. I would say that universities are currently looking for private and commercial lawyers as they are thin on the ground at the moment. Most undergraduates studying these areas are snapped up by private practice firms and there is a lack of people researching these areas.

As far as career progression, lecturers are promoted to associate professor level after about five to eight years. The next step is professor, which is within 8-10 years of starting out as a lecturer. When you are promoted depends on how you plan your own research. There is no strict timetable for promotions but good universities will keep a check on who is up to what and when they should apply for the next stage.

mtl: Any tips for our readers?

Sandra: If you are interested in academia, then work out how you can demonstrate why you want to do it and what area you want to focus on. It is not an insurmountable move. The first year of teaching is the hardest and it takes you by surprise how much preparation you have to do. Get organised in advance and resign yourself to spending a lot of time on teaching for the first year. First year lecturers do get fewer hours to teach though to help them but it will probably still take you about twice as long as you expect. Time management skills are therefore very important.

The main appeal of this job for me is being able to investigate what I find interesting, closely followed by being able to tell everyone else about it! It requires intellectual curiosity and you can’t sit back on your laurels as you have to move from one project to the next. As long as your work is likely to be original and productive or consists of a new approach to an old idea, you are given autonomy by your employer.

There is a very collegiate atmosphere among academics which is another plus. Everyone has the same goal and is happy to discuss issues. I couldn’t enjoy my job any more than I already do as it suits me perfectly and allows me to have the life I want. The number of academics that leave to go into practice or to a different area altogether is very small. I guess once you commit to academia you know that you like it already. You will never make millions but the job pays off in other ways.

mtl: Thanks for you time Sandra.

Career timeline


Law, University of Nottingham



Ph.D in law, University of Nottingham



Lecturer in commercial law, University of Nottingham


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