Vale Judge James Crawford: A Model PhD Supervisor

Vale Judge James Crawford: A Model PhD Supervisor

Many of us were profoundly saddened on Monday 31 May to hear of the passing of a titan – Judge James Crawford SC AC FBA* – and a mentor, colleague and friend to many. I do not wish my recollections to intrude on tributes from family or his closest friends, but I would like to add my pebble of remembrance to the cairn of our collective grief. There is no need here to recite once again his astonishing career and his contributions to the field. I would, instead, like to reflect on what he taught me about being a good PhD supervisor. I was fortunate to have James as a supervisor, and the debt I owe him was one I could only ever pay forward. (In the UK and Australia one usually has a primary supervisor lightly supplemented by a secondary supervisor, rather than a larger advisory committee.)

Ivan Shearer, another great Australian international lawyer sadly no longer with us, once told me a story about James. It is among my favorites. James was visiting Australia and staying with Ivan.

“I got up in the night to go to the loo,” said Ivan. “It was about four in the morning. I passed James’ door and the light was on and I could hear his keyboard tapping. I asked him the next day what on earth he was doing. ‘I was awake,’ James said, ‘so I was helping a PhD student’.”

This, for me, sums up a great deal of James as I knew him. His relentless travelling schedule, his seeming never to sleep, his astonishing capacity for work – and his dedication to his students.

Indeed, I was speaking earlier in the week with another former student of his. We recalled other PhD students at Cambridge would submit a draft chapter to their supervisor and – in the two to four weeks it might take to get comments – relax. Possibly even go on a short holiday. This was not our experience. I once sent James a draft on a Friday morning and, by the time I got in from the pub that night, had a heavily red-lined mark-up sitting in my email with a suggestion I meet him at 9.30 the next morning, a Saturday, in his office at the Lauterpacht Centre. (That I finished my PhD early was not entirely my own doing.) And I was but one of many: I think by the time he left Cambridge for the Hague he had seen over 80 PhD students graduate across the span of his academic career.

We were all of us, the graduate student cohort at Cambridge, in awe of James. I had met him first in 1998 as a competitor in the Jessup Moot, appearing before him in the final round in Washington DC. I had no contact with him again before arriving as an LLM student in Cambridge in 2003. He was not teaching a course that year, though he gave a single guest class in one of the courses I was taking. Thus, I was not well-equipped with confidence for our first PhD supervision meeting. I had been assigned him as a supervisor quite late, Christine Gray having first agreed to take me. (“I have given you to James …,” she emailed me. “This will probably be good for your career. Do not become one of his research assistants.” More on that later.)

At that first supervision meeting in 2004 he asked me, somewhat unpromisingly, to remind him of my topic.

“Stopping and searching ships on the high seas in times of peace and war?” I stammered.

“Not a field I know a great deal about. I am sure I will learn a lot from you. But the topic seems too big. How will you halve it?”

I gulped: “Um, I wrote a bit on the law of naval warfare for my dissertation, so perhaps I should focus on peace-time law enforcement?”

He nodded. “And what will you do first?”

“The treaty practice seems to grow out of narcotics interdiction agreements, so I should probably start with drug smuggling.”

He nodded again. “Good. Write a paper on drug smuggling treaties, then.”

So I left and I did. Most of my early meetings with James were like that. Brief discussions, although thereafter always based on a draft paper he’d already minutely commented on. I left each of our meetings feeling I’d had at least an hour of his time with my head stuffed full of things I needed to think about. In truth, I don’t think any lasted longer than 15-20 minutes. There was little small talk and every sentence he spoke was always precise and densely freighted with meaning.

It took me a year to realize he quite liked me. It also took some time for the modesty of his claim that he learned a great deal from students as he supervised them to sink in. In retrospect, my awestruck approach said much more about me than him. He was notoriously kind to students. So many stories have emerged in the last few days of him corresponding extensively with PhD students or early career academics at other institutions who wrote to him out of the blue. Everyone was worth his time.

It also took me quite some time to realise that James was an excellent supervisor of both the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ of a PhD. His extensive red-lining was a masterclass in drafting. His legal English was both plain and accessible but was always – always – deeply informed by his vast hinterland of knowledge. And frequently dryly humorous. But the depth of his comments on the tactical level of a text could obscure the clarity of his strategic view.

Our face-to-face discussions were often in retrospect about strategy, the architecture of a PhD. I recall his advice now mostly as axioms. “I think it’s a good idea to write the PhD as the book.” Insanely, I took this advice and it worked. Or, once, when I was really stuck about how to tie my research together into a coherent whole: “I’ve always thought of yours as a dissertation in three parts …” and somehow, something clicked. I was unblocked.

Modesty was a theme in his advice, too. Once, in desperation to show him anything for a month’s fruitless work on the Lotus Case, I showed him a terrible draft – acknowledging it probably had no place in the thesis. His reply: “I’ve more than once had the humiliating experience of drafting 20 pages only to realise at the end of it that I was wrong and had to start again.” Yes, he gave me the crushing, necessary advice that this 20-pages was indeed rubbish – but wrapped in great empathy.

James’ other great gift as a supervisor was that, having achieved the summit of his profession and discipline, he was determined to leave the ladder down behind him. He created opportunities and was encouraging. The stable of researchers he seemed to maintain at all times (and which Christine Gray oddly warned me off joining) were talented young lawyers paid to assist with his prodigious case-load and his academic writing. Many have gone on to PhD study, academia or the bar. Working with James in this capacity was great experience and undoubtedly opened doors.

James was also always ready to pass opportunities to junior lawyers and scholars. He first introduced me to Philippe Sands who was looking at the time for someone to help write a memorandum of advice on a law of the sea issue. Philippe went on to become a colleague, friend and mentor with a profound impact on my career. Philippe, indeed, invited me to join his team for an arbitration, which was the only time I saw James arguing a case on his feet.

Finally, James took a continued interest in the careers of his PhD students and was a tireless referee. In December 2019 I was lucky enough to be able to visit him at the Peace Palace. He was exceedingly kind, talking a little about the issues in the cases before the Court, but showing keen interest in my current work and insisting I send him my recent articles. I did, and within a few days received a pithy reply showing he’d read them closely.

Much earlier in my career I had once, during a flurry of applications, apologized to him for asking for so many references when his time was so valuable. He wrote me that it was in the nature of the supervisor-supervisee relationship that I could call on him for a reference without advance notice for “the term of our joint lives”. It was an act of great generosity, expressed with his usual dry wit.

I am just so sorry that that term has come to an end.

In the end much of what he taught me by example about PhD supervision boils down to: everyone is worth your time; read closely but guide gently; leave the ladder down behind you. Or as Wordsworth put it: “That best portion of a good man’s life [is] his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”

*For those unfamiliar with Australian and British honors: Senior Counsel, Companion of the Order of Australia, and Fellow of the British Academy respectively.

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