Alumni

Alumni profile - Iria Giuffrida

Some people are very clear from early on that they are going to be lawyers – I was not one of them. Law was a means to an end; I like structure, and I’ve always liked solving problems, although I would be lying if I said I was aware of it at the time. It just felt like the kind of degree that trains you for ‘the real world’. Whether you want to be a lawyer or not, studying Law teaches you a rigorous way of thinking, of questioning things, of trying to build logical arguments, which can serve you well whatever career you pursue.

 

(English and European Law LLB, 2001; Law PhD, 2009)

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Can you tell me a bit about your research around artificial intelligence (AI)? What drew you to this area of research?

I was previously a Commercial Litigator in London, and not working on anything to do with AI. I got involved through one of the professors from William & Mary Law School, in the United States, where I pursued an LLM funded by the Drapers’ Scholarship that Queen Mary awarded to me in my final year of the LLB.  In late 2016, this professor contacted me asking what I knew about AI - which was nothing. Instead of just saying goodbye and finding someone else, he thought this was a good opportunity for me to learn something very different. So I left London to join the Centre for Legal & Court Technology (CLCT) at William & Mary Law School in Virginia, heading the AI research project.

CLCT received a grant from Cisco Systems Inc., to educate lawyers, judges and legal professionals on the kind of legal issues that are likely to arise from the more commercial uses of AI, the internet of things, and so on. Some of these issues are starting to bubble up in common discourse, for example, the balance of the benefits and risks of AI applications, and issues of privacy that they create. The European Union has very recently published draft legislation on how to regulate ethical AI.

The most interesting aspect of my work is that I’m learning something new every day. Some of these concepts are extremely challenging on an intellectual level. I’m not a trained scientist or information and communications specialist, but as lawyers we need to understand a bit of how the technology works to be able to predict or anticipate what kind of legal challenges may arise. It is very rewarding, having to push myself in trying to understand things that are outside my domain.

A PhD is never easy, and that’s the point, right? If that transition is easy and you’re not challenging yourself, you’re remaining in your comfort zone. My LLM was in the US which was quite a different cultural experience. Unfortunately, I arrived in the US two or three weeks before 9/11, and the trauma of that day had a strong impact on all students, local and foreign alike. But I really enjoyed the school so much so that that’s where I now work!

Why did you choose to study Law as an undergraduate? Why did you choose Queen Mary?

When I applied to Queen Mary, I was studying Law in Italy and hating it, and my younger sister had decided to come and study in the UK, so I thought maybe I should too. One reason I wanted to leave Italy was that I was keen to apply for the Erasmus year, but was not allowed to. It is when you’re pushed into a corner that you think “I’m going to do what I want to do”. So I said to myself, not only am I going to study in London, but I’m also going to do the Erasmus programme come what may. So I did! Queen Mary and Westfield College, as it was at the time, had Erasmus opportunities, and to my great surprise, they weren’t oversubscribed. My year in Leuven, Belgium, was fantastic.

In the month leading up to choosing which university I was going to go to, I remember going to the Octagon, to the registrar’s office, and this lady looked at me as I walked in and she said “Welcome to Queen Mary”. And just like that I knew ‘this is my place’. There was no deep or profound reason other than this extremely kind lady. She must have seen that I was a foreign student, I was exhausted and confused, she probably thought ‘oh, poor child’. I remember continuing to see her during my undergrad years, although I think she has retired now. It was that human touch that made me choose Queen Mary.

What was your experience of studying for a PhD? How did it differ from your experiences as an undergraduate or LLM student?

A PhD is never easy, and that’s the point, right? If that transition is easy and you’re not challenging yourself, you’re remaining in your comfort zone. My LLM was in the US which was quite a different cultural experience. Unfortunately, I arrived in the US two or three weeks before 9/11, and the trauma of that day had a strong impact on all students, local and foreign alike. But I really enjoyed the school so much so that that’s where I now work!

After the LLM, I stayed on teaching at William & Mary Law School for a year, and then I came back to Queen Mary for my PhD. I experienced the PhD as a rather solitary programme, but I know that there is now a lot more structured support for PhD students. I met incredible people. At the professor level I worked with Kenneth Armstrong, who is now at Cambridge University, and Nick Bernard, who is still at Queen Mary. I also had the opportunity to befriend other faculty members like Professors Rachael Mulheron QC (Hon) and Alan Dignam QC (Hon). It’s a challenging experience, but when you look back, you realise just how many skills you have learnt. For that, I will forever be grateful.

Can you tell me a bit about your career as an international lawyer, and how you decided to return to academia?

I’m intrinsically a very curious person, and like to do exciting and different things. The legal career is a beautiful, challenging and impactful space. We have the privilege to help those who need the legal system to achieve something, but don’t know how to manage it, or need guidance on how to protect their rights. It is an immense privilege to be gatekeepers of the rule of law. The imprinting that I received at Queen Mary is something I carried with me all of my life; professionalism, hard work, and a degree of compassion.

I’m always trying to learn something that I don’t know. I often tell my students that when you feel very comfortable in your job, there’s a problem, you risk becoming complacent, and you’re not learning. There are different stages and different needs in your professional life. I started off thinking that academia was what I wanted to do, and when I was just about to finish my PhD, I realised that I was feeling quite lonely, and I needed to feel like I had an impact. Some people can, and do have an impact through academia, but I didn’t feel that I was. This was a very personal need, rather than the general experience.

By moving to private practice, I also wanted to prove to myself that I could be a lawyer in one of the most competitive legal markets in the world. With the preparation that Queen Mary gave me, I could compete. I didn’t have an existing network to rely on, but I had the skills that I learnt at Queen Mary, and a bit of grit and resilience. This is the beauty of the legal career, you can pivot in different ways, but still push yourself ahead, and still learn. I may not have direct impact on clients now as an academic, but I’m working hard to get the next generation of lawyers excited about the privilege that they are going to have serving clients, whether public or private. I wish for them to be intentional about their careers, appreciating and wanting to honour the important role that lawyers have in society.

I remember hearing people say that legal training gives you the ability to cope with different kinds of careers, and I didn’t understand at the time, but it is true. We are trained to be intellectually flexible, and I had absolutely phenomenal training at Queen Mary. This is why I want to remain connected with the university. I feel an immense debt of gratitude, and if there’s a Queen Mary student to whom I can say one thing to make their experience or career a little bit better, then I want to do that.

What motivates you in life?

The best way to put it is something like FOMO (fear of missing out) but in terms of skills. I am afraid to miss something important out because I haven’t tried to develop a new set of skills. Like everyone else, I’ve made many mistakes, continue to on a daily basis, alas. The point is, what do we do after that? Do we sit down and give up, or do we say, ok, that was bad, but try again. Sometimes I sat down and gave up, but I think that more often than not, I picked myself up, and tried to do something else, something better.

Do you have any particularly fond memories of your time at Queen Mary?

Other than the lady in registry, who was such a warm person, I have loads of memories, but the other one I particularly remember is this. Just outside the Law School entrance on Mile End Road, there was a phone booth (this was pre-mobile phone…I have just dated myself!). It would have been November or December 2000, and I was told that I had been awarded the Drapers’ scholarship to study in the US. I remember running down the stairs, launching myself inside this telephone booth, making a collect call home. My mum picked up, and I recall telling her that I had the scholarship—we both cried. That is a really nice memory. I have many more, of wonderful professors and tutors, and of Sophia Oliver, who used to be the departmental secretary. She has since retired, but Sophia was everybody’s mum. She sometimes gave you tough love, but rightly so.

What advice would you give to a student considering their career options, or considering undertaking postgraduate study?

This is something that I learned way too late, to talk to alumni. Talk to an existing network of people who have been students before you, and who have done very different things. Nobody is going to be able to tell you what you need to do with your life, but I didn’t speak to anyone at the time, and bitterly regret it. I did not use that network, because I thought (wrongly) that asking for help was a sign of weakness. Nonsense. If I had reached out to any Queen Mary alumni, many would have spent 15 minutes chatting to me, and that’s all you need.

My advice is if you’re freaking out, and it feels like everybody has a great plan, but you: first – that’s not true, second – reach out to people who have been there (we’ve all been there!) and ask them what would they do in your shoes, what would they think about x. You talk to ten people, you’ll get ten different answers, but maybe one of them is what you need, gives you inspiration, tells you something you didn’t know. Whatever the doubt is, whether it’s professional, academic, should I get another qualification, should I do it in person or should I do it remotely, whatever the question is, reach out to people. We are so many, we are here, and most of us will help you if you ask.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Hannah Dormor. If you would like to get in touch with Iria or engage her in your work, please contact Hannah at h.dormor@qmul.ac.uk.