Malcolm Combe joined us in 2019 as a Senior Lecturer in Law. Since then, he has become the Law School's Communications Director and has also became a committee member of the Scottish Land Fund. As well as this, Malcolm is also busy working with the Scottish Land Commission with its Land and Human Rights Forum.
Tell us a little bit about your career so far...
I graduated LLB from the University of Strathclyde in 2005. I was lucky enough to win a few academic prizes in my second year, one of which was sponsored by the law firm Tods Murray. Through that I obtained a summer placement and then a traineeship (the two-year apprenticeship that anyone who wishes to practise law in Scotland must complete) and then I eventually took a full-time job there, based in its Edinburgh office in the infrastructure/capital projects team. Whilst I enjoyed my time there, I had always had a hankering that I might gravitate towards academia. I successfully applied for a lectureship in Scots private law at the University of Aberdeen, starting there in 2011. In 2014, Tods Murray went into administration, so maybe that career move was timely, albeit I feel I should stress I played no particular role in its insolvency!
At Aberdeen, I was involved in a range of things, such as teaching property law, commercial law and the vocational programme that is the stepping-stone before a Scottish traineeship (the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice), plus researching land law (particularly in relation to land reform) and issues connected to access to justice. I enjoyed my time at Aberdeen, but the call of a job at my old stomping ground was too much to resist, and here I am.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career so far?
As a lawyer you might be expecting me to say something about a big court case, but I was never really involved with litigation (save for a University of Strathclyde Law Clinic case where we won our client's deposit back from a landlord - I'll mention a bit more about the clinic below). For other noteworthy moments, I suppose I had a few city-slicking deals during which I worked what felt like all the hours of the day, such as for the 'financial close' of a hospital development project, and then in my academic career I've been delighted to get a few things published and help a few students through some sticky times, but particularly memorable moments have probably been linked to appearances at parliamentary committees or in the media. I've been involved in radio shows or TV reports on my research interests, and I was the discussant for a recent online piece about land reform for the BBC, but the most memorable of all was a couple of radio appearances (local and BBC) relating to a bit of University of Aberdeen history. This came about after a colleague chanced upon some old School of Law minutes which detailed, amongst other things, the School's opposition to Nazism in the 1930s, which the School had documented after being encouraged by the University of Amsterdam to take a stand as things were coming to a head in continental Europe. There was also a later snippet about some of Aberdeen's students being allowed to sit their law exams whilst they were prisoners of war. A journalist for The Times dug into that story a bit more, and the next thing I knew I was on BBC Radio Scotland's 'Newsdrive' programme talking about the whole thing!
What sparked your interest in Law?
This is a question I have fielded a few times in the past, and I confess I still struggle with it. I never considered law as a career when I was at school. I was always quite good at maths and science and the career advice I received tended to correspond to that. I even studied those subjects for a year at the University of Glasgow, then I had a bit of a wobble and was not sure about my studies at all. Fortunately, I met a couple of people (one via a part-time job, one via a shared interest in music) who were studying law and I suddenly realised this might be an option. After a few telephone calls and a timely intervention from my father to make sure I didn't let an opportunity pass me by, at the last minute Dr Jean McFadden managed to find room for me on Strathclyde's law degree, even though the programme was apparently full! I enjoyed my first year, but it wasn't until second year when I started studying property law under Scott Wortley that I really got into the discipline. I was also lucky enough to be a student when Professor Donald Nicolson was setting up the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic, so I can proudly claim to be a founding student member of that. I later became a student case manager. Involvement in the real cases that came before me made the law more "real" than ever, and I'd like to think such an early experience of trying to help people unable to obtain legal advice from elsewhere shaped my approach from then on in.
What is your role within the school?
It's still early days, but I've already been involved with some assessments for a course connected to the Law Clinic and an honours course called "Ethics, Professionalism, and Justice", which scrutinises the role and place of a lawyer. In terms of future roles, as a senior lecturer in Scots private law I will mainly be involved in teaching property law and perhaps some related commercial matters. I qualified in English law a few years ago, so I am expecting some teaching in relation to English property and land law as well. Away from teaching, I have a role with regard to citizenship, which includes the website and social media; that role meant I could not really say 'no' when I was asked to get involved with this online feature.
What current trends do you see influencing your field?
Tech is going to be huge. Whether it is the regulation of cryptocurrencies and the emergence of fintech, or artificial intelligence and the regulation thereof, there will be plenty for the law to catch up with. In my more traditional field of Scots property law though, Scottish land reform continues to be an issue that attracts the attention of politicians, not to mention there is still a fair bit of implementation to go in relation to the most recent statute on the issue, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, which will introduce a new community right to buy land where the existing land owner has somehow been blocking sustainable development.
Tell us about any research you are currently involved in.
For the past few months I have been an external adviser to a Scottish Government appointed working group looking at the regulation of deer in Scotland. I’ve also been involved with a few workstreams for the Scottish Land Commission, two of which have been published on its website and another should, I hope, be available relatively soon. In terms of more traditional academic research, I have been working on an edited collection about land reform in Scotland with Dr Annie Tindley (University of Newcastle) and Dr Jayne Glass (Scotland’s Rural College). It will be good to see that published by Edinburgh University Press in 2020. I also have ongoing research in relation to public access to land in Scotland and landlord and tenant law.
What initially attracted you to the University of Strathclyde?
A combination of personal and professional reasons. Taking the personal first, I have family in the area, so it will (mainly) be good to be a bit nearer them. As for the professional side, in early 2019 I finished a book project with Strathclyde’s Professor Pete Robson. Shortly after that book on landlord and tenant law was published, Pete got in touch to point out that the School of Law at Strathclyde was recruiting and encouraged me to apply. The chance to hook up with the University of Strathclyde Law Clinic again was also quite a pull factor, and it’s great to be back.
After studying Law, what opportunities are there for graduates?
For those studying traditional Scots law, a traineeship then a career as a solicitor or advocate would be the traditional options, but there are many alternative opportunities as well. I can think of plenty law graduates who work in journalism or politics, or who went straight to working in a contracts team in industry or some kind of risk or financial work at a bank or insurance company. It is also possible to incorporate other things into a Scots law degree, such as English law elements or foreign languages, which might open up opportunities furth of Scotland.
Any special thanks or shout-outs you'd like to give to colleagues who have helped or inspired you throughout your time here?
Although I focus on a different legal discipline now, I’m going to give a shout-out to the person who taught me public international law when I was an undergraduate here, namely Therese O’Donnell. I always enjoyed her classes, and she also gave me a timely pep talk at an important moment in my honours year. It’s great to have her as a colleague now.
If you could switch jobs with someone, who would it be?
Is this a trap designed to trip up relatively new employees? On the assumption it is safe to answer… I’ve always thought the person who wipes a Formula 1 driver’s visor during a pit stop has a pretty good number: travelling the world and just having to do that would be alright, eh? I am assuming of course there are no other background tasks involved. Imagine the carnage if you used the wrong cloth one day though.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
I enjoy music, both listening to and playing. I also “enjoy” following football (see below).
What is your guilty pleasure?
Aberdeen Football Club and/or the Scottish National Team.
In one word, describe what Strathclyde means to you.
You can keep up-to-date with Malcolm's research on the channels below:
'Review of the effectiveness of current community ownership mechanisms and of options for supporting the expansion of community ownership in Scotland' (Scottish Land Commission 2018)
'Small Landholdings Landownership & Registration Project Report' (The Scottish Government 2018)
'Dukes, aristocrats and tycoons: Who owns Scotland?' (BBC news article)
Residential Tenancies: Private and Social Renting in Scotland (4th edition) (with Pete Robson)
The ScotWays Guide to the Law of Access to Land in Scotland