By Stephanie Theophanidou, PhD Candidate, Cardiff University

I recently presented a working paper in the Lawyers and Legal Professions stream of the SLSA Conference 2018. This was based on my PhD thesis which compares the working practices of lawyers from the main UK and EU law-making institutions. The paper provides an insight into the purpose of the research, outlines particular methodological and theoretical choices, and presents some of the preliminary findings achieved to date. This blog post will summarise some aspects of the paper.

The need to rediscover the role of lawyers in public administration

The sociology of public administration is often ignored in the literature. Focus tends to be placed on broader operational and procedural issues such as human resource management, administrative reorganisation and democratic accountability.[1] As a result, we know very little about the everyday activities, experiences and influences of public administrators. My research addresses part of this deficit by providing an empirical investigation of lawyers in public administration. The importance of such research goes beyond providing an insight into the everyday work of public administrators. It can also contribute to improving recruitment and training practices, developing analytical capacity and, ultimately, strengthening legislative outcomes.[2]

One key reason for researching lawyers in public administration is to provide further insight into the unique identity they possess. It has been held that these lawyers have a dual identity which can present them with conflicting pressures that are difficult to resolve.[3] Given their legal education and training, lawyers might be inclined to operate as guardians of the law. At the same time, however, their duties and obligations as civil servants require them to uphold political objectives to the best of their abilities. Although the literature discusses which of these role conceptions should be adopted from an ethical perspective, there is minimal research exploring how these competing pressures actually influence the everyday tasks of lawyers.[4]

Another reason for researching lawyers in public administration is to better understand how these actors are able to navigate through the multidisciplinary ‘trading zone’ of law-making.[5] How are lawyers, who are often trained and recruited as generalists, able to provide sound and effective legal advice on highly technical issues such as climate change, food safety and financial services? Although the interaction between legal and non-legal expertise has been addressed in the literature, it is typically in the context of the challenges faced when lawyers engage with forensic evidence in the courtroom.[6]


An analysis of official UK and EU documents provides an initial understanding of how each law-making process has been formally institutionalised. In addition to such documentary analysis, lawyers from the main UK and EU institutions will be interviewed about their contribution to the legislative process. This will provide an insight into the work of lawyers. By work, I am referring to the taken-for-granted activities, practical judgements, explicit and tacit knowledge, interactions and negotiations that altogether constitute everyday public administration.[7]

Theoretical insight

The chosen theoretical framework used to analyse the data derives from sociological institutionalism. This theory argues that institutional factors help actors determine what is socially appropriate which in turn influences how these actors behave and how they define and express their identities.[8] Although this might appear overly structuralist, the role of agency and structure is intertwined as the concept of social appropriateness is not fixed but is produced, reproduced and made meaningful through interactions. Many of the institutional differences in the UK and EU law-making processes stem from the EU’s unique political and legal culture as a supranational state. In line with sociological institutionalism, this research investigates whether the socialisation of EU lawyers in this unique culture encourages different roles and professional orientations from those experienced by UK lawyers.

Brief findings to date

To date, interviews have been conducted with EU lawyers from the Commission, Parliament and Council. Below is a very brief summary of some of the themes emerging from these interviews:

  1. The different types of legal advice offered during the law-making process.
  2. The different role conceptions adopted by lawyers across the three institutions.
  3. The formal and informal mechanisms of exerting legal influence and their political feasibility.
  4. The ability for lawyers to engage in technical non-legal domains.
  5. The working relationship and dynamic between different types of EU lawyers.

Next steps

My next steps are to complete analysing EU data. I will then begin to collect UK data and start identifying whether working practices between UK and EU lawyers differ.

If you would like to discuss my research, please contact me at


[1] H Wagenaar, ‘“Knowing” the Rules: Administrative Work as Practice’ (2004) 64(6) Public Administration Review 643, 643

[2] M Howlett and AM Wellstead, ‘Policy Analysts in the Bureaucracy Revisited: The Nature of Professional Policy Work in Contemporary Government’ (2011) 49(4) Politics and Policy 613, 615.

[3] DA Marcello, ‘The Ethics and Politics of Legislative Drafting’ (1996) 70 Tulane Law Review 2437

[4] For an analysis of strategies adopted by Dutch civil servants involved in legislative drafting see B Tholen and E Mastenbroek, ‘Guardians of the Law or Loyal Administrators: Towards a Refined Administrative Ethos for Legislative Drafters’ (2013) 35(4) Administrative Theory & Praxis 487.

[5] See H Collins, R Evans and M Gorman, ‘Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise’ (2007) 38 Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 657

[6] See G Edmond, ‘Actual Innocents? Legal Limitations and their Implications for Forensic Science and Medicine’ (2011) 43(2-3) Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 177

[7] H Wagenaar, ‘“Knowing” the Rules: Administrative Work as Practice’ (2004) 64(6) Public Administration Review 643, 643

[8] PA Hall and RCR Taylor, ‘Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms’ (1996) 44 Political Studies 936, 949