On the job as a legal academic at Sydney Law School

Kym Sheehan completed LLB in 2005 and PhD in 2010 and is now legal academic at Sydney Law School.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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Where did you study?

I grew up in Southport on the Gold Coast, completing my BA degree (English and History) at the University of Queensland in 1988. I came to law in my late 30s, after a career in administration and human resources. I completed my LLB in 2005 and my PhD in 2010.

How did you come to be a legal academic?

I started my legal studies with the intention of eventually going to the Bar. I started tutoring, then lecturing, students at Melbourne Law School in mid-2005, while studying full-time for my PhD. I loved teaching, so moving into a full-time academic role in late 2008 was a natural move. I’ve had a gap of around 4.5 years from academia, returning to Sydney Law School in early 2016.

What does your job involve?

My role as an academic involves lecturing and tutoring law, undertaking research, presenting my findings at conferences and also via academic articles. I sit on one of the university’s ethics sub-committees where we review and approve modifications to human ethics research applications. There is an administrative component to my teaching work, as I am course coordinator for two compulsory law subjects. Over the last year I’ve acted as a judge in student mooting competitions.

Can you describe a typical day?

Each day varies to some extent depending upon whether I have teaching commitments or not. I’m an empirical law scholar, so I work with real data which can include interview studies. I enjoy this aspect of the research process very much as it takes ‘law on the books’ and translates it into real world practice. I also do policy work in the form of submissions to law reviews in my area of interest.

Are there any prerequisites to being an academic?

There is no one background required to be an academic, but you will need to be studying for, or have, a research higher degree. You’ve got to be able to communicate concepts and ideas and have a keen interest in, and passion for, the law. Empirical research requires an investigative mindset; and I suspect kind of mindset is one you either have or you don’t. There are other types of legal research you can do and these have different types of mindsets that work best.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I get to set my own research agenda, so I can pursue the questions that interest me. I really enjoy teaching students and gain satisfaction from seeing students develop their legal analysis and critical thinking skills. I also enjoy writing and seek to constantly improve this area of my work.

Which attributes lead to success in your role?

You have to be really focused on being original in your thinking. Ensuring your research stacks up requires discipline. In a sense you have to be self-critical but able to switch off. I do work most week-ends by choice as it’s when I get to work uninterrupted. While working on a research project, I tend to be very focused on that, so you need to be able to step away and remind yourself that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. 

 Learn more about working in this field, jump to career path in academia.