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31 May 2018


In the end, it was not to be. But you will, I hope, forgive we professors of law for savouring the moment even as it passes. For a brief period, it seemed that one of our number was to become prime minister of Italy. And that has piqued the interest of those of us who plough the same academic furrow.

In the past, (law) professors have not always had the kindest image from the press. Though in our defence, the history of journalists having a go at actually running things is hardly overflowing with success stories.

Professors have often been the subject of mockery, if not ridicule. The stereotype of the long winded (male) professor in a patched, ageing jacket, verbose, opinionated and sometimes wrong, bedevils the literature. And the spectre of ‘Those who can do, do, those who can’t teach’ hangs over the profession.

But now the law professoriat has a new hero: the new Prime minister of Italy, Professor Conte, professor of civil law at the University of Florence. Why was it that, at the time of political crisis in Italy, where populist parties from the left and right are coming together, they produce a law professor to be their candidate for prime minster?

The reasons are simple: he represented stability in the face of turmoil, solidity in the face of attack, and competence and respectability in the face of the EU. His English is good and, being Italian, he sports a very fine suit and tie.

Despite challenges to the accuracy of certain parts of his cv, the fact is that he is a law professor and his supporters, though not the President it turns out, thought him ready for the top job. So the Italians clearly recognise the value of law professors but what about the UK?

British academics have never been held in the high esteem their colleagues on the Continent experience. The public are at best ambivalent about them; some politicians deride them for their expertise.

Yet at the same time the demand for the skills and services of law professors, especially of EU law, has never been greater. Rarely does a day go by when a Professor of EU law is not appearing in the Houses of Westminster giving evidence to a select committee. Much less publicly, EU law professors are briefing politicians and civil servants about key aspects of EU law.

Briefing is the polite term. The reality is more often educating politicians and others about aspects of EU law: what is a customs union, what is a free trade area? And who knew that law professors make good teachers? Those years toiling away at the coalface of education, teaching generation after generation of students about the principles of direct effect and supremacy, have honed the skills of law professors to explain complex matters in simple terms to politicians and the wider public.

And modern technology has provided new outlets for academics to engage. Some have become internet sensations, many have mastered the art of the 140 character tweet to put their point across. Blogs have proved a highly effective medium: short, sharp and published quickly. And many EU law professors have appeared on more conventional media – the television and radio – simply explaining what is going on.

But the law professoriat has other skills too. In recent months, they have had to learn a lot about corners of domestic, EU and international law which they have never considered before. Years of preparing new lectures and classes have ingrained the skills to master a brief quickly, digest it and explain.

Part of being a law professor is about creativity: understanding the current position, analysing its strength and weaknesses and then proposing changes. Brexit provides an opportunity to demonstrate those skills in spades. Given how little preparation was done prior to the referendum for a leave vote, key policy areas are still pretty much a blank canvas.

Migration is a case in point. This is an area ripe for ideas and creative thinking. Law professors are proving quite good at that. What might the future policy look like? Are there existing models that can be drawn on?

Have they worked elsewhere? What can be done to improve them? Legal research, long derided in some quarters, is beginning to have direct relevance, even if not ‘impact’, that much derided term.

And Brexit has provided opportunities for law professors and policy makers to engage and to understand each other. The civil service is so stretched at the moment that they seem to appreciate the help. And law professors are keen to help.

While we must wait a while longer to find out what would happen to a country with a law professors in charge, we can console ourselves with the thought that we are still making a bit of a difference.  In answer to the question ‘Law professors, what are they good for?’, the answer might be ‘quite a lot’.

And given the history of the top job in Italy, the professor might want to remain on standby. Job security is roughly equivalent to that of a Premier League manager. Meanwhile, Italy – at least as I write – looks likely to get an economist instead. Probably best if this law professor steers clear of cheap academic jokes on that decision.

By Professor Catherine Barnard, senior fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe.


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