Is judicial biography scholarly enough for a PhD?

Photo of an IALS reader sitting on the floor looking at a book with book stacks to the right

This post was first published on 03/11/2021.

Author: Kate Faulkner PhD student at IALS and Legal Research Librarian at the Squire Law Library, University of Cambridge

In the Preface to Hobsbawm’s autobiography where he apologises (as so many biographers do) for writing a biography, he writes:

History, as my colleague the philosopher Agnes Heller put it, ‘is about what happens seen from outside, memoirs are about what happens seen from within’.1 It is an intimate view of history.

Just like traditional historians, legal scholars have not always been comfortable with the use of biography in legal historical research. Presumably this is because biography is considered too subjective, personal and messy, while the law is purported to be impartial, unbiased and consistent. However, as we move into an era where we must consider people’s lived experience rather than just what is listed on their CV, it seems to be a good time to consider the role of biography in scholarly research. As biography details lived experience, it is particularly appropriate for me as I am basing my PhD research at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies on the memoirs and records of a High Court judge created between 1967 and 1988.

It is refreshing to research a ‘normal person’, albeit still a judge, but not one who was particularly senior, and who divided his time between the courts and Inn business. Evelyn Faithfull Monier-Williams (known as Bill) kept papers recording all his activity in Inner Temple where he was involved on almost every committee and was very active as a Vice President of the Council of Legal Education. Looking at the legal world through a ‘normal person’s’ thoughts, compared to a Lord Chancellor or politician, is more focused as there are fewer distractions but, on the flip side, there is less material to use for research.

I am fortunate with this project, in that the Bench Papers and memoirs kept by Monier-Williams are extensive, but that also the Inner Temple and IALS archives have many administrative records and minutes which corroborate his writings. This represents what Guy Holborn calls ‘the Holy Grail’: ‘Inn papers are fairly “terse” so personal papers add context’.2

It is interesting to note that in the past law students were often advised to read biography as part of their legal education. The section of Glanville Williams’ Learning the Law 3 that discusses general reading includes a section on Biography and how they can be a useful way to learn the law. He particularly highlights how William Ballantine’s book Some Experiences of a Barrister’s Life (1882) ‘gives shrewd advice on advocacy’.

This illustrates how reading narrative – including the stories that are told in biographies – is a good way to learn, remember and develop empathy – all useful skills for law students and lawyers, and even judges. Stories help contextualise history in a constructivist way where we build knowledge on what we already know and understand.

David Sugarman, a great proponent of the valuable role of legal biography, states that

Legal life-writing provides a vital resource for understanding the idea and culture of the legal community and their place in the wider world 4.

McEldowney points out that legal biography is particularly relevant in our common law jurisdiction and that ‘The importance of biography in providing insights into and providing interest in legal history is often neglected’.5  Whereas Dingle highlights that

without biographical detail, the picture is incomplete […] legal biography is an essential part of the equation in evaluating any individual’s contribution to the evolution of law.6

Although my ‘subject’ was not senior enough in the legal profession to have affected how the law evolved – his role with the Council of Legal Education, Cumberland Lodge weekends and his demonstrated interest in students and pupils at Inner Temple, certainly affected how young barristers were taught. Particularly regarding the inclusion of advocacy practice as part of their legal skills training. This was an early example of widening participation. Why is this relevant? These students of the 1970s and 80s are now the senior members of the legal profession.




1 Eric J Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (Paperback edition, Abacus 2003). piii


2 Guy Holborn, ‘Biographical Research and Institutional Archives: The Case of the Inns of Court’ (2014) 14 Legal Information Management 69. p72


3 Glanville Williams, Learning the Law (8th edn, Stevens & Sons 1969). p209-211


4 David Sugarman, ‘Alternative Visions of Legal Biography: An Abstract’ (2014) 14 Legal Information Management 16. p17


5 John McEldowney, ‘Challenges in Legal Biography’ (2004) 39 Irish Jurist 215. p16


6 Lesley Dingle, ‘Legal Biography, Oral History and the Cambridge Eminent Scholars Archive (ESA)’ (2014) 14 Legal Information Management 58. p63

Kate Faulkner

Kate Faulkner is Legal Research Librarian at the Squire Law Library, University of Cambridge and studying for a PhD at IALS.