Motifs of law in the Victorian press & its precious e-shadow

An interview with


Craig Newbery-Jones is fascinated with the depiction of the lawyer in the 19th century legal press and how the debates on regulation bear resemblance to the undertones of contemporary debates on regulation of the legal profession. Future employability is the principal concern for most of today's law students and in this wide ranging interview the discussion also includes the importance of e-learning as well as embedding employability skills to the law degree curriculum.  

TheLawMap: Your PhD thesis, ‘Constructing a Popular Image: The Press Representation of the Bar in Nineteenth Century England', sounds absolutely fascinating. What are the most interesting aspects of 19th century legal history that may draw parallel with today's legal profession?

Thank you! I obviously think it’s fascinating, but I also truly believe that engagement with historical representations of the law and lawyers in sources of popular culture can greatly assist in our understanding of contemporary legal culture. Professional legal issues of the past can, and should, inform contemporary legal problems.

I will just give a brief premise of my research. I explore the representation of the barrister in the press of nineteenth century and its far-reaching effects on themes and motifs found in modern popular culture. The overall aim is to determine whether the press of the nineteenth century is considered to have created a popular public image of the bar, while investigating the nature of this image and the reasons behind its formation. Finally, it analyses the significance of this historical public image in the development of motifs of the lawyer in contemporary popular culture.

One of the most interesting aspects of my research has been examining how the problems facing the bar of nineteenth century England are markedly similar to issues being discussed and debated in relation to the modern profession. The press of the nineteenth century widely reported the bar’s regulatory matters and educational systems, and questioned their suitability to function in the rapidly changing society of Victorian England. At times, the debates are nearly identical to those being undertaken in contemporary society, especially the suitability of legal education and the transparency (or lack thereof) of self-regulation. It is incredibly thought-provoking to analyse how the bar responded to these criticisms in order to examine the legacy of these criticisms today.

Furthermore, it is interesting to see how these criticisms have perpetuated themes and motifs in historical and contemporary popular culture. Criticisms around self-regulation and deficient education have clearly encouraged concepts of the lawyer as greedy, as unethical and as a betrayer of trust, a legacy that we still can’t shake. Sources of popular culture can provide us with a medium through which to explore these ethical issues, interrogate problems in legal practice and examine societal perceptions of the law and lawyers, in order to address problems within the legal profession.

TheLawMap: Has the internet age led to a greater appreciation of legal issues across the globe?

I think that the internet age has led to a greater proliferation of sources depicting and discussing pertinent legal issues. I also think that social media and the internet have encouraged a more widespread public awareness of legal issues. Specifically, the digital age has shed light on many fundamental global legal issues and has stimulated dialogue across jurisdictional boundaries. The world has become a much smaller place, and has allowed legal practitioners and scholars to collaborate and explore global legal issues in ways not even envisaged just over a decade ago. Your blog is a testament to this.

However, I don’t believe that this has necessarily led to an increased appreciation or increased interest in legal affairs. The public has always been interested in the law, legal process and lawyers. Throughout modern history, there has always been widespread engagement with the law, specifically criminal law. From the age of public executions to more recent trials by media, the public has always been interested in legal processes and this has never abated. I believe it is the media that has changed, not the interest of the public.

As far as a greater appreciation of legal issues goes, I think the internet has done little to encourage this amongst the general public. I think the recent debates around legal aid exemplify this. While the bar was rightly campaigning against the proposed cuts in order to ensure access to justice and the right to legal representation, a wider public (and press) view was that it was about ensuring financial remuneration. This was simply wrong and is indicative of more general lack of appreciation of legal issues in society. This is something that needs to be addressed. Last week, the TES (Times Educational Supplement, UK) reported how the Church of England had encouraged education ministers to consider teaching Christian commandments as part of the proposed ‘British Values’ curriculum. I believe that it would be more judicious to teach legal rights and legal systems to school pupils. This would encourage a greater appreciation of the law, the legal system and the role of lawyers in society, while engaging the next generation of citizens in this fundamental state institution.

TheLawMap: You are passionate about 'embedding employability skills in the undergraduate curriculum'? What are the key challenges?

I am a passionate advocate of experiential learning and embedding employability skills in the legal curriculum. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) outlined certain deficiencies in undergraduate education but, more importantly, it has encouraged legal education providers an opportunity to evaluate the sufficiency of their programmes. While there are a number of challenges currently facing legal education in England and Wales, I truly believe that embedding employability skills in the undergraduate curriculum is vital in beginning to surmount these.

One of the greatest challenges in modern legal education is actually defining employability skills, and ascertaining how this can compliment legal education. In a forthcoming article, I outline a revised definition for legal employability skills and advocate how we can provide better education to students for legal and non-legal employment, while also encouraging students to consider more critically the role of the lawyer in society. I believe that there needs to be a clear paradigm through which to develop a comprehensive curriculum of employability in order to allow students to acquire a full ‘employability toolkit.’ We must seriously think about what students need in the twenty-first century workplace and develop tailored employability programmes. This can be difficult to do without clearly defining employability.

Another challenge is finding a place for experiential learning, which includes substantial opportunity for reflection, in legal education. English undergraduate legal education has a strong tradition based around acquiring core substantive knowledge. We need to compliment this by providing experiential learning opportunities that include substantial reflective processes. This may seem difficult but experiential learning must have a place in the law school of the future and must contain reflective components. Reflection is something that is prevalent in all spheres of employment and should be actively encouraged in legal education. Reflection can also ensure that students are able to develop their own skills and isolate their own weaknesses. This process of reflection can also explicitly demonstrate to students the skills they have acquired and developed.

The existing debates around education provide the legal academy an opportunity to holistically consider how law schools can embed general employability skills, legal skills and collective values and attitudes with curricular to better prepare our students for twenty-first century practise.

TheLawMap: Please tell us about your work on the development of the VBR (virtual board room), the collaborative environment that gives students the opportunity to work together and prepare caseload work by researching tasks using specific legal resources.
The VBR is something I’m extremely proud of. During my lectureship at the University of Exeter, I acted as the law school’s e-learning and digital resource coordinator. In this capacity, I was responsible for a number of curriculum innovations and educational improvements.

One of the most notable projects I was involved in was the first year restructuring project management team. This project completely redesigned the delivery of the first year law degree and created a vehicle for placing employability, experiential learning, problem solving and professional practice at the heart of the law degree. For me personally, one of the most important aims of this project was to ensure that our students could appropriately develop their digital literacy and demonstrate collaborative working skills in order to compete in the contemporary legal marketplace.

To achieve this, I conceptualised the ‘virtual boardroom.’ The VBR was an online collaborative platform that sought to assist students in managing their casework and facilitate more efficient group working. While researching potential software platforms, it was obvious that many existing collaborative sites were not suitable for undergraduate students due to their complexity. In conjunction with Mike Jeffries-Harris (University of Exeter CSSIS e-learning coordinator), we agreed upon an ELGG platform. This allowed us to create a ‘bridge’ between social media platforms and professional collaborative software to encourage engagement and simplify the user experience. Due to his skills and experience, the platform was constructed by Mike and hosted on the law school’s website. This platform included numerous features that were related to employability and collaborative working, a feature of modern employment. These features included:

  • Discussion - Within each Firm page there was a discussion tool where students could continue conversations they may have started face-to-face and work remotely using an Adobe Connect Room to videoconference.
  • Messages – Allowed students to communicate directly, one to one, or to all the firm members.
  • File Upload and Editor – Students were able to upload and share important documents and resources. All the firm’s members could also edit these online.
  • Bookmarks – Allowed students to share bookmarks and relevant materials with their firm.
  • Twitter and RSS Feeds – Appeared on the students individual dashboards to assist in them remaining up-to-date with news and social media.
  • The Wire – Student were able to keep friends and colleagues up-to-date with what they were working on.
  • Blog – Students could complete their own personal blog or learning journal space.
  • Answers - Students could post questions to the whole Boardroom and receive answers.
  • Links to Team Match Software - Students could identify their skills and maximise their roles within the firm.
I am currently piloting a similar project at Plymouth University as part of our ‘Dispute Resolution Skills’ module. Instead of an ELGG platform, we are using the SANSspaceplatform to focus more specifically on constructing and organising case files. Our students work through a case file, from first contact with the client to advocating at trial, to give them experience in all aspects of professional legal skills. I have also developed a specific reflective component to the assessment, in order to encourage the students to evaluate their own development and signpost the skills they should have developed upon completion of the course. This reflection will utilise SANSspace video recording facilities.

TheLawMap: Is there a personality from the past or present within the ranks of the legal profession, legal academia or the judiciary who you admire the most?

That is such a difficult question as I have had the pleasure of working with some phenomenal legal scholars during my career and it would be unfair to isolate just one. This might read like a bit of a roll of honour but I admire them all. Professor David Sugarman (Lancaster University), Professor Chantal Stebbings (University of Exeter), Professor Kim Stevenson (Plymouth University) have all had a profound impact on my career, and Dr Mitchell Travis (University of Exeter) is a brilliant colleague, whose academic scholarship has been an immense inspiration on my current research. Finally, Associate Professor Sue Prince (University of Exeter) has been a phenomenal mentor and a real inspiration. Sue encouraged and guided many of my early ideas when appraising legal education, and I can still rely on her feedback on any ideas I have. I really admire her dedication to education, her commitment to pro bono legal services, and her loyalty to her students. 

Craig is a lecturer in law at Plymouth University Law School. This role involves contributing effectively to the delivery of the LLB programme, teaching on the core Introduction to Law, Legal Systems and Skills, Dispute Resolution and Contract Law modules. This includes module administration, lecturing, workshop tutoring and examination responsibilities. Craig has also been responsible for the development and leadership of a number of other legal modules including Introduction to Law for Law Minors, Effective Legal Problem Solving, Contemporary Legal Issues, and Contract Law for the GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law).

With special thanks to Craig Newbery-Jones for his valuable time. He maintains an active social media presence through Twitter. When is not engaged in lecturing or research, he has a keen interest in music and plays bass in a band based in Exeter. He owns a VW camper van and spends many weekends travelling Devon and Cornwall's beautiful countryside.  

The title of this piece is a reference to the interviewee's passion for Victorian law as well as e-learning for today's students.