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Queen Mary Academy

Professor Nigel Spencer

Professor of Education Innovation and Professional Practice, School of Law

Describe some of the scholarship projects you have been a part of throughout your career

For nearly 20 years I have worked in industry, in the legal sector (I was Global Head of Learning & Development at two international firms, Simmons & Simmons and Reed Smith, for 13 years), then worked at Oxford's Said Business School designing/leading leadership programmes for professional services firms and conducting research into career paths and "skill sets of the future"

I moved to Queen Mary in 2020 into a Professor of Practice role in the Law School - where I had a link since 2014 when we created together an innovative "sandwich course" option for the Queen Mary law degree, the first Russell Group university to embrace this model. I approached the university because I had seen smaller "placement" experiments I did work well at graduate level in the law firms and thought, "I wonder what would happen if you tried the placements even earlier, at undergrad level - and there is a model there, "sandwich courses"! 

My projects have really been a long learning journey for myself of experimentation in these roles since 2004: so experimenting in professional education roles where I always tried to create new education models, new educational paths, qualifications and educational methods. I was really trying to ensure that lawyers’ professional development evolved to support what clients needed legal services professionals to do (which had been changing very quickly), which meant playing with new ideas for both the 'what' and the 'how' of the education. The 'what' being especially new programmes for making lawyers more commercial (which had been a major client demand, especially since the Financial Crash) and the 'how' being the invention of structures which allowed the immediate application of learning in the workplace - 'collapsing the distance between the workplace and the classroom', as I always used to say.

Over this period, I was lucky enough to win a number of industry awards for all the innovation in educational practice - all related to this portfolio of ideas and experiments we tried, many of which were subsequently adopted more broadly across the sector.  

I also really enjoyed throughout this time the regular ideas sharing at a broad sector level with peers.  I was asked to co-chair the UK legal sector-wide education body, and it was fascinating also to input into changes for the legal sector’s new CPD system, comparing professional development approaches across different industries.  Then there was the idea-sharing on the revised route to solicitor qualification – where some of the ‘learning by doing’ ideas we had tried were seen as helpful models for the new pathways.  And beyond that, I learnt so much in my roles on qualification boards with experts from other areas of professional services (including those who had amazing, encyclopaedic knowledge of EU-wide professional development approaches!). 

The last nearly twenty years has really flown by.  It has been so interesting to try out ideas, not only for creating new educational ‘building blocks’ in the career pathways, and helping to re-shape those pathways, but thinking too how you can improve learning effectiveness for ‘time poor’ professionals – which is a massive challenge in the legal sector. 

My learning over all that time is that, because the learners are so ‘time poor’, you really need to integrate the learning and work activity wherever you can.  It is about trying to achieve what Josh Bersin famously spoke about, creating models to ‘learn in the flow of work’, so more experiential learning models at all stages of the legal practitioners’ career paths: 

  • workplace-linked university learning models (such as our pioneering placement degree at Queen Mary:, again now adopted more widely in the sector from this work we led; 
  • innovative experiential leadership programmes experimenting with the embedding of learning methods from outside the sector (e.g. practical, drama-based learning for senior leaders to aid leadership and communication skills);
  • leadership development models which embed coaching, so that leaders can consider 1:1, ‘so what does this mean for me back at my desk – what habits do I need to change?’; and
  • experimenting with how technology can be used to create innovative educational ‘nudge’ methods of behavioural change and skills development – such as the business development skills ‘app’ with our Honorary Professor Anne Marcotty for which we were fortunate enough to win an FT Innovation Award (

I also carried out practice-based research over this period to measure the effectiveness of the experimentation and innovation, resulting in an award-winning publication series and other academic research outputs.

How has that work contributed to your career progression? 

The scholarship projects provided me with opportunities to reflect upon my own practices, to learn from others, share experiences with the national and international education communities, and interact with different stakeholders. On reflection, I’m really grateful also that they challenged me to shape my professional values and develop my academic leadership capabilities. It is hard to credit any single project as playing a key role in my career development, as they all contributed in their own way. Identifying the right, timely, and relevant scholarship questions in context before diving into actions is crucial to make a meaningful impact. 

How would you describe the impact of your scholarship? 

I hope that the impact has been offering practical help to people with their careers through some of the work we have done: helping them to achieve their goals and to not just survive, but to thrive, in a very challenging industry sector.  And I think for me, because all the work was with very international audiences, who have different educational traditions and react differently to the ideas, that it made me a more curious, attentive and, hopefully, intuitive ‘people person’ – you learn to notice things more.  As with all scholarship projects, you are dealing with people as learners, educators, fellow researchers, scholars and professionals. Technologies and other compounding factors also have an impact on how teaching and learning are facilitated, and what you can try. But fundamentally, education is about people’s development and learning is a lifelong process. I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to conduct these scholarship projects and contribute to the advancement of education across the sector with so many wonderful colleagues and partners.

What advice would you give to academics about the importance of scholarship to academic careers? 

Engaging in scholarship is vital for personal and professional growth, so I would say: find the area you are passionate about, and explore, experiment and ‘enjoy the journey’ as Constantine Cavafy famously told us to do in his wonderful poem Ithaca – because it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.  I have been so lucky to find the opportunity to experiment over so many years, and to take a long and winding learning path. Scholarship projects enable you work collaboratively to generate new knowledge, insights and perspectives, and contribute to the advancement of your disciplinary field.  For me, active engagement in scholarly activities built me networks and life-long connections with like-minded people who in turn supported my career development, stretching my thinking and giving me the confidence to try more ideas. By aligning your scholarship projects with your personal and professional goals, as well as institutional priorities, I’ve also always felt too that you can enhance the impact and the quality of your scholarly contribution. So embrace scholarship in your academic journey, because it will lead you to continuous learning, expanded horizons and a more productive and fulfilling career.  Leaving the last words to (my paraphrasing of) Cavafy: Keep Ithaca in your mind, but don’t hurry the journey – it’s better if it lasts years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, ‘wealthy’ with everything you’ve gained on the way.  Indeed.

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