Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Leaving a legacy: what kind of scholar do you want to be?

Graeme Laurie

What kind of scholar do you want to be? Nobody ever asked me this question in the formative years of my academic career. Yet, I believe that it is one of the most important questions an academic should ask themselves; and there are so many ways to answer the question. In this blog I offer some personal reflections on this topic and what legacy means to me. This post is the final one in a series of five that draws on chapters contained in the festschrift Law and Legacy in Medical Jurisprudence: Essays in Honour of Graeme Laurie published by Cambridge University Press (CUP).

For the legal academic, the question of what kind of legal scholar we want to be can be addressed in myriad ways. For example, this can be approached according to the kind of research we wish to undertake: do we prefer so-called black letter law and doctrinal work, and/or comparative analysis across legal systems, and/or are we interested in systems-level scholarship, examining constitutions or international frameworks? Alternatively, we might be drawn to the realms of the theoretical or historical, while others prefer to work at the coalface of contemporary practice.

Beyond this, there is the related question of what do we want our scholarship to do? Do we want to shift paradigms in a field; to disrupt conventional thinking; to disabuse our readers of erroneous thinking or assumptions that beleaguer our field; to establish new areas of inquiry, to build bridges to and with other disciplines; and/or to break free of the confines of the Academy in order to pursue impacts in policy and practice?

To be clear, I do not wish to suggest that the above options are in any way mutually exclusive nor that we must choose and stick with a single approach for the entirety of a career. But I do advocate in the strongest terms that – at any given stage of one’s career – it is important to be asking ourselves these questions. Repeatedly, if necessary. In the end, the sum of what we contribute is the basis of any legacy that we leave and for which we aspire to be remembered.

Reflecting on the title question to this blog also returns us to the first blog in this series which was concerned with teaching. In that contribution, I noted that our academic grandfather in Edinburgh Law School, Professor J Kenyon Mason, always maintained that teaching was the most important – and rewarding – part of the job. For many, this remains the admirable motivation for joining academia and is the top priority in the discharge of their duties. The legacy of committed teachers is embodied in their former students. We are blessed if we have inspired graduates in their attitudes and behaviours for the years to come. This kind of legacy will often have influence long after an article or a book has made an imprint on scholarship and now languishes forgotten in a library, real or virtual.

A further dimension of modern academia is the so-called impact agenda. In the UK, this has been driven in large part by the requirements of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which since 2014 has required all universities to submit impact case studies demonstrating real world influence arising directly from their research. But scholarship can have impact in multiple other ways beyond these narrow confines, including through research-led teaching and curriculum reform. Moreover, irrespective of the route one takes in the pursuit of impact the journey must begin with the effective translation of research findings into digestible lessons, insights, and/or recommendations for non-academic audiences.  Only by these means can we hope to increase the likelihood of uptake of our research. This is no easy task. Success or failure often turn on the cultivation and nurturing of relationships and networks furth of the Academy and a commitment to co-produce research findings with stakeholders. This brings additional challenges and removes a significant amount of influence from the scholar over the nature and direction of any legacy that they might leave.  

For my part, any claim to legacy is haphazard and fragmented; probably because I did not address the title question of this blog early enough in my career!

I suggested in the second blog of this series that my work on privacy may represent the strongest contender as a scholarly contribution. This scholarship is characterised by an interest in the theoretical and conceptual nature of privacy; I have been far less engaged by black letter law developments in the field because, for me, these have ephemeral value compared to the enduring significance of deep conceptual understanding in a field. I can say now that such a conceptual orientation has come to typify my work more generally in more recent years, but this was certainly not a plan from the start.

Equally, on teaching my involvement in the textbook Law and Medical Ethics came about through happenstance and at the invitation of the original authors, albeit that a commitment to research-led teaching through this kind of resource is, to my mind, an essential part of the life of an academic. Few experiences in academia are more heartwarming than being contacted by a former student years later and to hear about all the ways in which their learning helped to shape their future careers and lives.  

Finally, on impact I have had the great fortune to work with colleagues in many biomedical and legal sectors, domestically and internationally. Together, we have achieved demonstrable impacts in the regulation of stem cell innovation in Argentina, in the delivery of good data governance in health research in Scotland, and in the promotion of the public interest in health research more generally. Yet, none of this would have been possible were it not for the good relationships we were able to build and for the common commitment to change that we were able to forge. Any claim to legacy through impact is demonstrably an exercise in collective effort.

Finally, to return to the festschrift that has been the inspiration behind this series of blogs, I would like to thank all the contributors who have done me an immeasurable honour by writing chapters that have engaged so fully with my work and with the subject of legacy. I cannot do justice to each and every contribution, but I do want them all to know that their ideas have inspired my musings here.

My ultimate gratitude, however, must go to my dear colleagues and friends, Edward Dove and Niamh Nic Shuibhne, who put this collection together. They have impressed and inspired me so much in the years that we have known each other. Legacy is nothing if it is not about people. I am truly blessed to have their friendship; this is the enduring legacy that I cherish the most.

Law and Legacy in Medical Jurisprudence by Edward S. Dove, Niamh Nic Shuibhne

About The Author

Graeme Laurie

Graeme Laurie is Professorial Fellow in the School of Law at the University of Edinburgh and Founding Director of the JK Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and the Law. He...

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