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Studying online: An interview with Mark Jeffrey

With the world taking unprecedented measures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic by using technology and the online world, we talk to alumni Mark Jeffrey about studying with us exclusively online. In 2010, he studied the LLM in International Legal Practice with The University of Law, entirely remotely while living in Switzerland at the age of 51. Having an already well established career path, he was able to use examples from his working and personal life throughout his course, especially when it came to his final dissertation.

I’m a “standards officer” or “technical diplomat” in Microsoft’s global Corporate Standards Group, which is part of the broader Corporate, External and Legal Affairs (CELA) organisation under Brad Smith. While I’m based in Switzerland, my manager sits in Dubai and the rest of my team are spread all around the planet, including across Europe, China and Korea, to Australia and several in the USA. That makes for a lot of international travel under normal circumstance, and a lot of conference calls with other timezones at crazy hours. This is not a nine-to-five job.

The job titles probably won’t mean too much to most people. I’m a Chartered Engineer rather than a lawyer but with an added qualification in law. Where many people in mid-career might choose to pursue an MBA, I had no desire to manage people or budgets, so opted for the Law instead as I had always found it interesting and intellectually challenging.

My role is to represent Microsoft on various international committees where new standards that affect the development and use of ICT systems are proposed, developed, and formalised. As part of that role I’m vice chair of the UK Standards Committee with regards to cloud computing and I was an editor of the foundational cloud computing standard ISO/IEC 17788 which defines the core terminology for the cloud computing industry worldwide.

Standards work has always had legal components to it. Firstly, when collaborating with other global companies there can always be concerns over staying within relevant competition/antitrust rules. Secondly, standards can be heavily involved with intellectual property issues (such as submarine patents, patent licensing, copyright on documents, etc). Most standards bodies have good governance processes to keep these things under control, but just occasionally a group of companies will come together without such protection, and ensuring my employer doesn’t end up in court over it is important. Thirdly, this is also often intertwined with Regulations, such as the new EU Free Flow of Non-Personal Data Regulation that has to be implemented. This was designed to ensure that cloud service customers are able to move from one cloud service provider to another with minimal difficulty, to reduce lock in and improve competition in the market. I’ve been involved in negotiating a Code of Conduct to support this, as required by the Regulations, where the European Commission has been a direct observer in the room to our deliberations.

While I’m not a lawyer myself, I work with some of the best technology lawyers on the planet. Even so, there are sometimes situations where my LL.M-based knowledge means I spot something that could be an issue (such as a difference between US and European law), and of course it greatly helps that they have an engineer who can speak the lawyer’s language but also understand the technical issues being addressed.

I live and work in Switzerland, mostly from home, but I also have to travel (in more normal times) to meetings around the world to represent Microsoft or the UK. I also spend a lot of time on conference calls and in remote meetings, often at very antisocial hours. So, I needed to choose a course where I wasn’t tied to a specific location, nor to specific regular times of day that I could not guarantee availability for. The iLL.M allowed me to work completely asynchronously when it best suited me and in some cases I could do the work while actually travelling.

Online study has helped me achieve my career aspirations. I would not have been able to do this any other way. Although taking the course was my own idea, from the outset I received full support of the company and my management, and they paid the course fees for me.

I can only speak for my own experience, but Microsoft doesn’t seem to mind either way if you’ve studied your degree online or physically. They will always support staff and will usually grant us the freedom to choose what works best for us. The company isn’t at all hung up on qualifications for their own sake. What matters is your ability to put what you learn into practice, not the letters after your name (though those can help with external contacts sometimes). Self-improvement is a core value at Microsoft.

I think studying online certainly imposed a discipline of study and personal investigation, I liked digging out information online myself than to ask a tutor and wait for a response.

My job has busy days and quiet days so being able to flex my online college work into the quiet times was essential. My wife, also a former ULaw graduate, had a baby quite early in the course (not expected when I signed up), which added an extra family dynamic to that time of my life. The flexibility is definitely the key advantage, not being tied to a specific place and being able to spread the course over a total of 3.5 years so it didn’t interfere with my normal working life. It also gave me other things to think about than just the work tasks at hand.

Location was the biggest reason for me to study online, since I had no access to such a course from where I live, and I was already well established in my career with no opportunity to take a break from it or relocate. An engineer in a high-tech company can rapidly become obsolete if taking time away from it. We have to keep running just to stay up to date with technology and business developments. This is probably why you don’t see people like me in Parliament. Stepping away from engineering can easily be a one-way trip, so courses need to work within our normal work life.

My advice to those finding themselves studying online for the first time due to the current circumstances is that firstly, keep yourself in balance. If it starts to get overwhelming, then stop. Take a break. Watch a movie or go for a (local) walk alone. Beating yourself up or feeling guilty for not being a superhero doesn’t help anyone, and stressing out won’t help you progress. Take time to sharpen the saw. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you need to keep everything in proportion. Perhaps plan some blocks of time for specific things and stick to them. If you need some extra time for an assignment, for heavens sake ask your tutor before you get down to a last-minute deadline panic. I only had to do that a couple over times over the whole course, and it was never a problem. The University staff understand the pressures and want you to stay safe and sane.

Always keep in mind that this is all temporary. It won’t go on forever, neither the virus nor the course. Keep your goals in sight and keep chipping away at them. In a few years you will be able to look back and smile.

Some people will always feel more comfortable working alone, while others are better within a group. Introverts (like me) will probably have less issues studying from home. If you are more extrovert, try to find people you can discuss things with online. The Microsoft Teams collaboration tool is free to use at present, and other companies are doing the same thing with their cloud communications services. Take advantage of those tools in addition to whatever the University is providing. Maybe find a Facebook group of other law students, even ones from other countries, and try to arrange some virtual get-togethers.

Don’t feed yourself a diet of scary news stories. Turn off the news for a few days. Getting a quick summary from BBC radio is enough for the facts you need. Don’t wallow in online virus news and arguments about it; it really won’t help.

Online is a good option. Once you get used to working alone, or especially if you have a specific need for flexibility in where and when you attend and work, online is going to be a good option. It worked very well for me. Good luck, whatever you choose.

 

Learn more about the online courses we offer at The University of Law