Dr. Andrew J. M. Steven is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Edinburgh Law School where he teaches Property Law. In 2011, he was appointed to the Scottish Law Commission for five years and in 2016 his appointment was renewed for a further three years. He was the lead Commissioner responsible for the Scottish Law Commission's Report on Moveable Transactions, the longest report in the Commission’s history. His research is also focused on security rights. Dr. Andrew Steven is now the lead in research projects on heritable securities, and he hopes that his research will continue to serve as the basis for what he himself calls a “much-needed reform” of the relevant law. Dr. Steven also teaches at the annual European Private Law Summer School at the University of Salzburg and in 2009 became one of the founding members of the Akademie für Europäisches Privatrecht of Salzburg.
Lawyr.it: First of all, we would like to know why you chose to pursue a career in law. When did you discover your interest in property law and security rights?
A.S.: Thanks. I appreciate this opportunity to speak to you. I have been the Edinburgh Law School staff member responsible for the Edinburgh Student Law Review since its inception in 2009 and it is very nice to be interviewed by another publication run by law students.
When I was at secondary school I decided that I wanted to become a doctor and studied mostly science. But when it became time to apply to University I changed my mind. I was no longer convinced about medicine and thought that law would be a good general degree. My father blames Alex Salmond (the former First Minister of Scotland) for this. He was our local Member of Parliament and we had him to lunch one day, where he advised me that law was a good choice for someone contemplating a career in public life. But I have never had political ambitions!
My interest in property law was stimulated by two of the teachers on my LLB degree (Professor George Gretton and Professor Kenneth Reid). They subsequently became the supervisors of my doctorate. Its subject was pledge and lien, two security rights over moveable property. We chose that area because it badly needed research. Since completing my doctorate I have continued to specialise in security rights, although I have a broad interest in property law.
Lawyr.it: While many of those who study law nowadays hope for a successful career as corporate lawyers, you focused your professional development on research work, teaching and law reform. How and why did you decide this?
A.S.: During my LLB degree, I had a summer placement in the commercial property department of a large law firm in Edinburgh and did not terribly enjoy it. There seemed to be little law involved. The focus was more on documents, for example comparing the clauses in 150 leases of units in a shopping centre. In contrast, I was really enjoying University life and was not anxious to leave. This is why I explored the possibility of a doctorate. I heard that I had obtained a scholarship on the day of my LLB graduation.
On embarking on the PhD, I found that I enjoyed the research, as well as the part-time teaching. By my final year I had decided that I would become an academic. I did not want to work in a law office. This, however, did not impress my supervisors. They said that someone teaching property law and conveyancing who had not professionally qualified as a solicitor was like someone teaching surgery who had never entered an operating theatre. They persuaded me to qualify. In Scotland this takes three years: there is a one-year Diploma and a two-year traineeship in a law firm. In contrast to my summer placement I enjoyed the traineeship, but on balance I still wanted to become an academic. This was much to the displeasure of the senior partner at my firm who said that I had a great future ahead of me in legal practice and that an academic career was a “sheer waste of time”.
Nonetheless, I became a lecturer in the Edinburgh Law School. In 2011, the opportunity arose to apply to become a Commissioner at the Scottish Law Commission. At the time, the Commission had begun to work on security rights, so this opportunity appealed to me.
Lawyr.it: What are your thoughts about teaching law in an uncodified mixed legal system? Is it more difficult than in a codified legal system?
A.S.: As you know, Scotland is an uncodified legal system, like England and Wales. But unlike our Southern British neighbours we are a mixed legal system; that is to say, our law has been heavily influenced by both Roman law and English common law. At a basic level, I think that it is more difficult to teach the law when it is uncodified. It is not possible simply to turn to the obligations or property book in the civil code, because there is no civil code. Our law principally consists of legislation and case law, but there are other sources too, such as authoritative writers (known in Scotland as the “institutional writers”, because they followed the Roman law model). That is why it is important to have good student textbooks. George Gretton and I have authored a book on property, trusts and succession law which tries to set out the law in a very accessible way, with lots of examples.
At a deeper level, there are of course arguments to be made for and against codification. For example, the German Civil Code in practice is not read alone; the lengthy commentaries on it must also be consulted. The result is something not entirely different from an uncodified system, where there are academic publications which attempt to state the law in detail.
Lawyr.it: Given that law must continuously adapt itself to society’s ever-growing needs, what do you think is the biggest challenge a law teacher has to face on a day-to-day basis?
A.S.: It is important to remain up-to-date. Some areas evolve more rapidly than others. Much of Scottish moveable property law has not changed for centuries, but we are trying to address that. Embracing new technology is also important, as students know far more about that than older people like me. In the last couple of years, I have increasingly used Google Maps and Street View to explain property law cases.
Lawyr.it: What about law students? What do you think a law student needs in order to succeed?
A.S.: Law students need to work hard and to be dedicated. When I was a student, there were five Scottish Law Schools. There are now ten. This means that there is greater competition for jobs. The world has also become increasingly smaller and law students need to be able to demonstrate that they can match their peers in other jurisdictions with whom they will have to deal in international transactions. I would also encourage students to take advantage of extra-curricular opportunities in a Law School, such as mooting and student journals. We even have a Law School Choir at Edinburgh. I think that such participation is attractive to prospective employers who will look for a student’s contribution to the community.
Lawyr.it: As a teacher, have you ever felt that you are, in one way or other, responsible for your students’ future careers and professional fulfilment? How would you describe your relationship with your students in that regard?
A.S.: In my early days of tutoring, I felt that whether students passed or failed their exam was my responsibility. I quickly realised, however, that this was not completely within my control; it depended on the students working hard. Now, I see being to inspire students as my responsibility: to try and engage their interest so that they will work hard. I might even inspire them to carry out postgraduate research work in property law. In relation to future careers, this must ultimately be the student’s choice, but I am happy to try and help them by giving advice.
Lawyr.it: You started to teach at the annual Salzburg Summer School of European Private Law in 2004 and the Scottish group of students is currently one of the largest groups attending this course. Why would you recommend this experience to the students who have discovered an interest in private law?
A.S.: The summer school is a wonderful opportunity to be introduced to the private law of so many European countries, as well as legal systems in other continents. Its students have the chance to learn from not only the teachers but from each other. We have also been fortunate to have had lectures from distinguished judges, such as Justice Anthony Kennedy of the US Supreme Court. For my students, one of the main lessons is the importance of languages. Everyone at the summer school can speak English, but many of my students can speak only English. They are taken aback by other students who can speak three or four languages fluently. Languages are an important theme of the summer school and very close to the heart of the director, Professor Michael Rainer.
Lawyr.it: Has anything changed in the students’ perspective during these years? Are the new generations of students any different from those who attended the summer school in your first years of teaching?
A.S.: The summer school has grown. When I first started teaching there in 2004, there were perhaps 70 students. Now there are around 140. In 2004, there were about 15 teachers and now there are 40. For students this means that there are many legal systems to try to remember, so I have reduced my lecture on Scottish law to two main points: (1) we are a mixed legal system and (2) we are uncodified. Technology has also had an impact. We no longer provide paper handouts. And I see students carrying their civil codes around with them less than in earlier years, because they now have them on their iPads. My perception too is that there is an increasing dominance of female students. This is certainly true of LLB students at Edinburgh where a clear majority are women.
Lawyr.it: The Salzburg Summer School has become a tradition over the years among the top universities in Europe. What is your favourite part of this experience?
A.S.: I could say Sachertorte, but the real answer is that it is a great opportunity to meet other private lawyers in a beautiful location. I have made many friends through the summer school. For example, I have taught in Estonia with Professor Irene Kull and in Switzerland with Professor Pascal Pichonnaz. They are both fellow summer school teachers. Professor Mircea Bob, my Romanian colleague, recently spent a month researching in Edinburgh and I hope to visit Cluj-Napoca next year. I strongly believe that, following Brexit, we need to maintain strong links with Europe. The Salzburg Summer School was funded initially in part by the EU, and it has been a great success.
Lawyr.it: I could not miss the fact that your students think of you as a role model and admire your career path, but at the same time, they feel very close to you, mentioning that you are a good friend and wise counsellor. Did you also have a role model or someone who guided your career and inspired you?
A.S.: It is kind of you to say that. I have had several role models. I have mentioned my two doctoral supervisors, who were inspiring teachers. In my early years as a lecturer, I was also greatly influenced by a colleague who was incredibly supportive to students. She worked for the wider community too by setting up the Edinburgh Law School’s Free Legal Advice Centre, as well as the Law School Choir which I mentioned earlier. Sadly, she died of cancer in her early 50s, but I try to follow her good example to this day.
Lawyr.it: Could you tell us more about your work as a Commissioner for the Scottish Law Commission, especially about the project on the reform of the law of moveable transactions, which resulted to the longest report in the Commission's history, containing over 200 recommendations?
A.S.: The Commission, along with its counterpart in London, the Law Commission for England and Wales, was set up in 1965. The 1960s were a period of great change and it was felt that there was a need for an independent public body to advise on law reform both in London and in Edinburgh. The Commission has five Commissioners, all appointed on fixed terms by the Scottish Government. Each project on which we work has a lead Commissioner. The maximum length of time that you can serve is eight years and I will complete my period of service next year, after which I will return to the Edinburgh Law School.
As I have already said, moveable property law in Scotland has been the subject of little reform to date. The moveable transactions project dealt with three main areas: (1) assignation (assignment/cession) of claims, such as rights to payment; (2) security over incorporeal (intangible) moveable property; and (3) security over corporeal (tangible) moveable property. In all three areas our law is out-of-date and does not meet modern commercial needs. For assignation, unlike in many other legal systems, intimation (notification) to the debtor is a necessary step for a claim to be transferred from the assignor to assignee. This is very cumbersome where the same assignation is of multiple claims. Security over incorporeal moveable property such as intellectual property and financial instruments can only be achieved by transferring the asset to the creditor, which has numerous disadvantages. For corporeal moveable property, the only universally available security is the possessory pledge and businesses can hardly afford to deliver essential assets like equipment and vehicles to their bank. We recommend that the law is reformed to allow assignations to take effect by registration and a new non-possessory form of security over moveable property to be created, also by registration.
Lawyr.it: What is the most important law reform you have had to deal with during your work for the Commission?
A.S.: As lead Commissioner, it has been moveable transactions. But during my time at the Commission we have also published important reports on contract law, defamation and prescription. We also have very recently begun a project on homicide.
Lawyr.it: And finally, the classic Lawyr.it question to finish things off; if you had to give one piece of advice to current law students, what would that be?
A.S.: Take your time to work out what career you want to pursue and ask people that know you for advice on this. I have known too many students that “follow the crowd” into working for a big commercial law firm, because such firms recruit earliest, and then changing their career path later, because they are not enjoying what they are doing. If in doubt, take a gap year after your degree to decide what is right for you.
By Francesca Buta
This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 5 Ed. 3, September 2018, available only online.