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'Before worrying about fees and scholarships, find out what you're buying'

Law professor Sarah Nield discusses her areas of expertise, and the benefits of going abroad to study law. She also has some great advice for those who are considering law studies in the UK.
BY Uma Asher |   11-07-2017

Professor Sarah Nield
Professor Sarah Nield

Professor Sarah Nield, Professor of Property Law at the University of Southampton’s law school, has worked as a solicitor in the UK and Hong Kong. She taught at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Bristol, and now teaches at Southampton Law School. She studied at University College London. She has also researched into the regulation of common land and its role in environmental conservation. Her current work is concerned with mortgages and their regulation, as well as the interface between property and human rights. She took time out of her schedule for this email interview with BrainGain Magazine. Edited excerpts:
 

Could you tell us a little about the courses you teach at Southampton Law School?

I teach both undergraduate and postgraduate courses. On our LLB programme, I teach Land Law to our second year students, and Company Law to our final year students. On our postgraduate programme, I teach several courses on corporate financing… Large companies can raise funds through equity finance by the issue of shares to investors. Smaller to medium-sized companies, by contrast, usually raise funds by borrowing from a bank. I concentrate on this latter type of loan finance. As part of our well known Maritime Law LLM, I teach Ship Finance, and as part of our Commercial LLM, I teach Principles of Secured Transactions and a course that follows on called Advanced Secured Transactions.

One of your interests is the regulation of common lands. Could you tell us a bit about your work in this area? It is an important issue as economic development and environmental conservation are often seen as a trade-off.

The ownership of common property has always been important. Where I live in England, there is a large area of common land called the New Forest. It was once a royal hunting forest but is now a national park, and enjoyed as an area of outstanding natural beauty by many people. One of the reasons why the New Forest has been conserved is because for centuries local inhabitants have enjoyed the right to graze their animals in the forest and over the centuries were resistant to any development that would interfere with their grazing rights. To regulate these grazing rights, a sophisticated legal structure has developed in which a special court, called the Verderers Court, plays an important role. Some years ago I was asked by the Verderers to research this legal structure and it was this that sparked my interest in common lands. I am now part of a network of scholars across the world that are interested in communal property, whether that be places like the New Forest or the more mundane common parts of a flat development. If any scholars in India would like to join this network, they should contact me.

A stream in the New Forest
A stream in the New Forest (photo by Tanya Hart, used under CC license)

Given that legal systems vary from one country to another, how can studying abroad benefit a law student?

It is true that legal systems – particularly property laws – vary from country to country, but we face common problems. There is much to learn from how each society addresses them. Law students who take the opportunity to study abroad will open up their horizons both to appreciate how other jurisdictions operate, and to understand more deeply the strengths and weaknesses of their home jurisdiction. It is said that travel broadens the mind and legal travel is no exception.

After becoming a solicitor in London, you spent more than a decade in Hong Kong. Could you tell us how your legal training helped you practice in a new country, and how you filled in the gaps?

I learnt a lot very quickly when I went to practise and then teach in Hong Kong! Two particular aspects of my legal training helped. First, my legal education provided me with a map of the key concepts that shape a common law legal system like England, Hong Kong or India. There are common features and ideas that enable common lawyers to speak to each other, although the detailed rules may differ. Secondly, my legal training provided me with the skills to research what those detailed rules are in any particular jurisdiction. I could read the court cases and the relevant legislation from which they are derived. Indeed, I discovered as much about English law as Hong Kong law, because I could take nothing for granted.

What is your advice to international students who are considering studying law in the UK? Is it better to go abroad for undergraduate or postgraduate studies if you want to pursue law?

Choose where you study carefully. I have found that Indian students tend to ask me two questions: how much are the fees, and are there any scholarships. These are, of course, important questions because study in the UK is expensive. However, before asking about the cost, I think it is important to find out what you are buying – then you can work out if the price is worth paying!

Most overseas students probably decide that what they want to buy is postgraduate education to give them an international profile which can mark them out as distinctive, particularly when they have studied a specialism. Some law schools’ undergraduate degrees, including ours, are recognised by the Bar Council of India. However, that is insufficient for immediate admission; further study is required to complete the required number of years of study and a knowledge of the essentials of the Indian legal system.

So what should guide a student's choice?

Reputation of the university is important. By this I mean global reputation – there are many domestic league tables these days, but they measure different things and rarely look at postgraduate education. If you are an overseas student, you want a degree that is recognised globally, so in the UK you need to consider first the Russell Group of universities.

Then, of course, a student needs to consider the specialism they want to study. This is not as difficult at the undergraduate level – undergraduate degrees at UK universities are similar, as they must cover the compulsory subjects required by the legal profession. However, at the postgraduate level, specialism differs from university to university. For instance, Southampton Law School is known globally for Maritime Law and International Trade. 

Lastly, don't overlook location and living environment – the UK is more than London, and London is expensive!

University of Southampton campus
University of Southampton campus (photo courtesy University of Southampton)

How are international students at Southampton Law School typically funded?

There are scholarships for first-class students, and it is possible to work part time, although one must check the visa restrictions for the current terms. Some work is available at the university, and students can register at what is known as the Temp Bank. Some students are funded by their governments or employers, or are able to obtain loans at reasonable rates.

How do Southampton Law School students typically transit to the job market?

Employability is high on our school's agenda, given that entry into the legal profession is highly competitive. Internships are important, and students will often need to go through a competitive process to secure an internship. Internships generally are awarded by law firms rather than organised by law schools, although some of our prizes for top students will take the form of an internship.

Our school provides support both through the university's central careers service and our own law school career adviser, who maintains excellent links with law firms and organises a number of career-related events. Foremost are the annual career fairs and an employability skills fortnight for second-year students. This support is available to international students, with the caveat that they must satisfy any visa requirements.

Alumni are important too, particularly in certain countries. We have a strong alumni network in India, particularly in the maritime and international trade communities.

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