Q&A with Mr Stephen Clear FRSA, Law Lead at Bangor University
This issue, Chaynee Hodgetts interviews a University Subject Lead in Law and Law Lecturer, Mr Stephen Clear FRSA...
Founded in 1884, Bangor University (formerly University of Wales, Bangor) is one of the oldest academic institutions in the country – and it was originally built upon the donations of local workers, from quarries and fields to factories, contributing from their own minimal pay towards the public appeal for funding. Since being built on the hard work of previous generations (and admitting female students since its inception), the University has further evolved and transformed over the centuries. It opened a Law School 18 years ago and becoming a diverse, dynamic and different place for students to read Law at undergraduate and postgraduate level, now led by subject lead for law, Mr Stephen Clear FRSA.
Please tell us about yourself – what is your current role?
I am originally from London and have been resident in North Wales since 2007. Since 2011, I have been employed as a lecturer in constitutional and administrative law at Bangor University in North Wales. I have previously served as the Law School’s senior tutor and pastoral care lead (2012-2021). In August 2021, I was appointed lead for law at the University. My day-to-day role includes teaching Public Law, Legal Skills, Media Law, and Advocacy Skills to both domestic and international law students, as well as supervising postgraduate research projects in areas of Constitutional Reform, Public Procurement Law, and Human Rights Law. I am also currently employed as an external examiner at both Manchester University and the University of Hull.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
There are two aspects of the job that I would say I enjoy most:
Firstly, teaching aspiring lawyers in an internationalised classroom. I find it highly rewarding discussing the role of the State and Constitutional Law with students from approximately 24 different countries in any given year. Sharing ideas coming from these different jurisdictions, as well as experiences as to what the law is, and what it might be in the future, helps keep me passionate about what I do – particularly when facilitating tutorials among learning communities who are determined, motivated, and inquisitive in ‘wanting to find out more’ about the subject area.
Secondly, contrary to what some may perceive the role of law lecturer to be, there is a great deal of variety in the role. As the cliche goes, no two days are the same. Teaching law is exciting, challenging, and dynamic. As a discipline area we do not stay static, and I am continuously looking for ways to update my course content and evolve my teaching and delivery methods. I enjoy the challenge of bridging the links between the academic theory of law, alongside insights as to how the rules applies in practice (via, perhaps moot court simulations and problem-based learning scenarios). As a law lecturer, not only am I staying abreast of practical changes in my field of specialism, but also debating different 'schools of thought' surrounding ideas that have the potential to influence future reform. In respect of both my teaching and research, this includes working closely with judges, solicitors, barristers, parliamentarians, and policy makers, for example, to stage field trips to the Houses of Parliament and Senedd in Wales (to learn more about law making processes); organising guest lectures on campus; stage moots in the Supreme Court; or more broadly contribute to consultations, conferences, and publish academic papers. I thoroughly enjoy being engaged with my area of specialism on so many multi-faceted levels.
What do you find most challenging about what you do?
As is the case with the legal professions, time management and addressing competing (urgent) prioritise is always a challenge. As my University's law subject lead, the level of variety in my role has increased, and now includes aspects of curriculum design and management; implementing an SQE-facing curriculum; embedding employability skills within our programmes; international agreements; and overseas professional regulatory body requirements and recognition (just to name but a few). However, my current employer places a high emphasis on strategies for achieving a work v life balance. More broadly, the challenges of this role have also led to me taking a keener research interest in preparing students for the world of legal practice. For example, in recent years, and particularly during the covid-19 pandemic, I have been including tutorials on resilience, time management, wellbeing and mindfulness as part of my Legal Skills module. These sessions have included several guest contributions from local solicitors and have been a great opportunity (afterwards) to personally self-reflect on how I manage my own work v life balance as a law lecturer.
What led you to the role you’re in today?
From a very young age I was fascinated by both the legal system and the courts. I enjoyed closely following stories in the press and media surrounding miscarriages of justice and court trials. At secondary school I was lucky enough to secure some work experience with clerks at a barristers' chambers in Chancery Lane, London, right on the doorsteps of the Royal Courts of Justice. Accompanying lawyers to court and witnessing the eloquent 'art of advocacy' first-hand, confirmed what I wanted to do, and what my career aspirations were. From there, I studied A Level Law, and went on to University (always with the intention of completing the Bar course). However, like all best made plans, things changed as opportunities arose. No doubt inspired by those who taught me, I developed a keen research interest in areas of Public Law (specifically Judicial Review) as well as Public Procurement Law. A series of opportunities arose for me to be part of exciting multi-national EU funded research projects with partners in Ireland, Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. As a result, I was able to widen my professional networks, develop a teaching career, and explore my academic interest in Public Law further, and ultimately arrive at where I am today.
What is a typical working day like for you?
It is hard to say there is a 'typical day' for a law lecturer. For those of us employed by a University on a teaching and research contract there are three core areas of responsibility: teaching, research, and administration. In reality this means my day can go from teaching Public Law in the morning, to presenting a research paper over lunch, to coaching and mentoring Personal Tutees as to their wellbeing, employability and career aspirations in the afternoon. However, as already mentioned, following my lead for law appointment, subject area management responsibilities have changed the balance slightly (and brought new challenges in respect of my areas of responsibility).
Are you involved in any charitable or pro bono work?
I currently volunteer as a law employability mentor at the Open University, in offering personal (one-to-one online) career advice and guidance to mentees who are finishing their undergraduate law degrees and want to discuss their options post-graduation. I am also actively involved in fundraising efforts in North Wales for both the Access to Justice Foundation and Mind Cymru. This has included personally fundraising over £1,000 during the pandemic for the mental health charity (by running 90 miles in nine days)!
Where do you see your law department heading in the next few years?
As a subject lead for a law department within a University, I am conscious of the longer-terms challenges posed by the pandemic for students as part of their teaching and learning journey. As we start to return to more on campus teaching and assessments over the coming months, we need to be even more mindful of supportive transitioning from this academic year to 2022/23. It is also important that we learn from some of the innovations we were able to develop during the pandemic. We should look to retain some of the technology enhancements that students tell us they have welcomed over the covid-19 period. More broadly, I am looking forward to working closely with our Student Law Society groups to re-stage even more of the in-person community events (such as annual law balls) and employability seminars and in-person fairs, that have been traditional highlights of our academic calendar.
What are the main projects you are working on at the moment?
I am currently working on four main projects, these are: working on the 2022 revisions to my co-edited reference work, Public Procurement Law and Practice, which is published by Sweet and Maxwell (Thomson Reuters); as well as preparing a chapter for publication on Law student wellbeing within an internationalised law classroom. I am also engaged in a curriculum review project (which continues the process of re-evaluating and reflecting on what is needed by the professions as part of our degree offering). Finally, I am working with students and other overseas professional bodies to deliver professional recognition, all of which will keep me busy over the summer.
Which things would you most like to change in your sector, in an ideal (or more practical!) world?
Across both law academia and legal practice (and of course those who belong to both groups), everyone is always exceptionally busy, and juggling their competing diary demands. However, I always relish the opportunity to attend conferences that bring us both together (including this interview). In an ideal world, I would welcome more opportunities (or even more online forums) which facilitate discussions between us as a 'wider community of lawyers'. We are lucky in Wales to have one such community, in the form of Legal Wales. This is a unique forum which convenes all the elements of the Welsh legal community in Wales and beyond in a spirit of ‘cymmrodoriaeth.’
Are there any laws you think need to change? Any laws that currently work well?
As a Public lawyer, I am much concerned by the package of UK Constitutional Law reforms which were proposed by the Johnson government in 2019 as part of their manifesto commitments. I wrote about these for the Conversation following their election success: https://www.theconversation.com/boris-johnson-is-planning-radical-changes-to-the-uk-constitution-here-are-the-ones-you-need-to-know-about-128956. Many of these radical changes are still being mooted, mostly following public consultation, and independent panel reviews. However, most recently this has included the introduction of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill; as well as the Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights consultation. Adequate time for scrutiny needs to be given to any laws which seek to reformulate the working relationship between the State and individual citizens; as well as the relationship between the State institutions themselves (i.e. Parliament, government, and the judiciary)- not least in terms of constitutional safeguards and the efficiency and meaningfulness of our systems of 'check and balance'.
What would your advice be to new starters in your role?
Be open to the prospect of new modules, developing new specialisms, and expanding into new interest areas. Seize the opportunities that present themselves to you (you never know where they may lead in the future)! I did this in 2020/21 in researching areas of Media Law. I am now part of a bigger Media Law teaching team, and I am now supervising research students who are exploring the role of human rights (freedom of expression and the right to privacy) when it comes to social media and online platforms (using several international comparative case studies coming from other jurisdictions). As a result, I am now networking with both academics and practitioners in a new field and exploring the relationship between Public Law and areas of Media Law.
What one thing do you wish you’d known before now?
While a key part of an academic's career development is being open to new opportunities, networking, and collaborations, it is also important to maintain sight of your current workload (as it comes in 'peaks and troughs' throughout the academic year). In that sense, I would say to my very early career self that sometimes it is okay to say 'no' and recognise that you cannot take on more projects. In fact, sometimes it is a necessity. As with all professions, it is important for us to have a 'long term' career goal in mind, and what we have to say 'yes' to in order to develop. But it is equally important to sometimes practice negative assertion. In order to identify what we are good at, we need to be equally able to recognise what is 'not for us' – or is even 'practically impossible.' I periodically remind myself that, if you say 'yes' to every opportunity, but fail to deliver on that promise, your 'yes' in fact becomes meaningless. As a result, you are compromising your 'personal brand', reputation, and integrity. Similarly, a good law lecturer (much like a good lawyer) needs to be passionate about what they do. Our chosen professions comprise that passion if it becomes about always saying 'yes' and 'anyone would do this'.
What do you do to ensure work-life balance when you’re not working?
When I am not working, I enjoy exploring the great outdoors (of which there are plenty of scenic walks and treks around Snowdonia National Park, and the mountain coastlines and beaches along North Wales). I also enjoy visiting different countries and cultures. As part of my job, I have been able to explore this interest a little, having had the good fortune of being able to visit Law Schools and lawyers in Ireland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, India, and China. More recently I have developed new DIY home renovations skills (mostly learnt from YouTube... of which nearly 50 per cent have been successful!).
What are your hopes for the future in your own sector (and field of influence)?
My hope is that we will be able to embrace new technologies, to even more greatly bridge the relationship between law lecturers and legal practitioners, as 'one law community'. The introduction of the Solicitor Qualifying Exam (while challenging in many regards) does present us with further opportunities to advance these conversations. More broadly, I hope to mentor and support early career academics towards experimenting with teaching and learning pedagogies, in developing 'new ways of thinking' and innovations, for the teaching of law that is fit for the challenges future generations of lawyers' face.
What would be your advice to practitioners thinking of becoming law lecturers?
Having now worked with five different Universities (all in different capacities) I would say don't be afraid to ask questions, or reach out to law lecturers you may know for tips, support, and guidance. Across the Higher Education sector, most Law academics are collegiate and supportive of those thinking of starting out as an academic (either while continuing in legal practice, or moving over to academia full time). I have felt the strength of this community most strongly when attending Association of Law Teacher (ALT) events, and have received some fantastic feedback from their committee members. Even now, I continue to receive mentorship from some of the leaders within this network that I highly admire. So, I would encourage anyone who is thinking of making the move to becoming a Law Lecturer to check out the ALT website.
More broadly, if you are new to higher education teaching, most institutions will ask you to sign up for either a postgraduate certificate of higher education course (PGCertHE), or alternatively pursue a form of Higher Education Academy Fellowship (perhaps by CPD, or other means). Great support material is freely available via the Advance HE website, which explains the processes surrounding securing recognition. Securing this recognition is also (usually) backed at institutional level by a University centre for teaching and learning (to guide you through the recognition processes).
Are there any key themes, ideas, or issues you would like to discuss or raise awareness of?
Just to flag that law lecturers are always looking for opportunities to work more closely with the legal professions (be it in response to mentorship opportunities, work placements, careers fairs, employability, or even just general feedback relating to legal education, training, or demands of future graduates within your workplace). Most universities' law schools will have either a director of clinical legal education or employability lead who I am sure would be delighted to hear from you and to learn from your ideas and/or experiences.
Stephen Clear FRSA SFHEA LLM (Res) LLB (Hons) PGCertHE, subject lead for law at Bangor University, was interviewed by Chaynee Hodgetts, Features & Opinion Editor and Barrister with Libertas Chambers: bangor.ac.uk/law