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Advice on making the most of your PhD

Paul Yates

Dr Paul Yates - Solicitor Advocate, Head of Pro Bono at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

“Imagine being able to spend three whole years investigating a topic you have chosen because it fascinates you the most. You’re working with the world experts in that field: your PhD supervisor, PhD examiners and other academics from around the world”.

Dr Paul Yates completed his PhD in 2002. He studied Musicology and the topic of his research was “The Song Cycle in Nineteenth-Century France”.

Directly after finishing his PhD he started applying for training contracts to enable him to start a career as a solicitor. He secured a job at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer where he still works. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul revealed that among his contemporaries, converting to law from musicology is not unheard of, albeit he and his fellow musicologists-turned-lawyers are drawn from a very “small community”. Paul explained: “I started my job in February 2006, first as a trainee and then a qualified associate in the commercial disputes practice. My job now is to run the firm’s pro bono practice. In my own cases I act for victims of human trafficking in litigation against the people who have exploited them within the UK. I run a small team which helps to find and organise the most impactful pro bono opportunities for the 2,500-or-so lawyers globally who work at the firm”.

Paul spoke about why he applied for an AHRB(C) studentship. He explained: “I found a topic during my undergraduate studies which fascinated me (song cycles) and I was hooked. I chose an aspect of this topic for my final-year dissertation, and again for my masters. The amazing privilege offered to me by the studentship was three years of full funding so I could focus exclusively on really getting to the bottom of this subject that I was captivated by. Imagine being able to spend three whole years investigating a topic you have chosen because it fascinates you the most. You’re working with the world experts in that field: your PhD supervisor, PhD examiners and other academics from around the world”.

Paul explained how doctoral study has affected him in his career, the transferable skills he learnt, and how he is using them in his role as a lawyer: “I think I make a lot of use of transferable skills from my doctoral study in several areas. In law, as in many careers, it’s very important to manage your own time effectively and to prioritise. For a PhD, you need to be able to manage your time pretty ruthlessly, especially if you want to finish within the three-year funding period. This is something which I definitely worked on and improved during my doctoral study, and now use every day. Paul continued: “Attention to written detail and rigour of thought more generally are vital in law, as in any doctorate. But why? I think whether you are speaking at conferences and seminars, writing papers, or drafting the thesis itself, you are essentially trying to persuade people that your argument is a strong one. Whether through written or oral advocacy, in court or otherwise, persuasion is also probably the most important thing lawyers do”.

He then explained another area of transferable skills, more specific to history: “A major part of my thesis was historical musicology; indeed, the AHRB funded me to spend a year out in Paris in the museums and libraries working with the relevant historical materials from the nineteenth century archives. Constructing and evidencing an argument, the forensic review of evidence, analysing and assessing whether each piece can support or undermine a particular theory: this is essentially the same process whether you are working with artefacts from archives as a historian or reviewing evidence as a lawyer”. Paul continued: “I think this is one of the reasons that the path from history to law is so well travelled”.

Paul also mentioned another skill that he thinks is useful to anybody, in any walk of life. “But is sometimes underrated and perhaps particularly useful in law. Part of studying history is developing the ability to put yourself in the shoes of different people who are looking at the same situation in a different way. For example, when you are doing historical research you often come across differing accounts of the same event from different people’s perspectives. As a historian you need to understand the point of view of the different people whose accounts you are looking at, in order to assess their validity and ultimately try to build the most accurate possible picture of what actually happened. This skill is of course an essential part of becoming a good lawyer. You might have different witnesses with differing accounts of an event, and you need to work out which version of what transpired is the most compelling. Or you’re in a negotiation and you need to figure out where the different parties are coming from, what their ‘red lines’ are, what they really want from the transaction. It feels like exercising the same part of my mind.”

Paul is asked what advice he would pass on to current and prospective PhD students. “Appreciate and enjoy the amazing opportunity you have to be following your own personal fascination: that would be number one. Number two would be to finish on time”!

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