Dr Stefanie Gustafsson, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Management and Co-Director of the Future of Work Research Centre, reflects on her experience involving knowledge exchange activities in her research about the career dynamics and work experiences of paralegals.
About my research
Through this research, I wanted to understand how paralegals experience their work, how they construct their careers, and how that is embedded within wider changes in the legal profession. The number of paralegals in the UK has risen sharply over the last decade and their roles have become increasingly varied and complex. Yet, paralegals are often excluded from traditional legal career trajectories. One of my aims was to contribute to paralegals’ career development and understanding, alongside their sense of meaning at work.
The knowledge exchange activities I did
I engaged stakeholders early in the research process, initially conducting a pilot study with a local law firm; I used the conversations with paralegals and HR staff from that study to shape this project and inform my bid to the ESRC, which was successful.
As part of the project, I put on a knowledge exchange event, From paralegal to partnership? Professions in times of change, that brought together academics with representatives of all the stakeholder groups involved in the research to discuss my findings on the challenges and opportunities for paralegals in the changing context of legal work. The knowledge generated at this event helped refine my data analysis and research findings.
I collected participant drawings on their experiences at work as part of my research, and I entered these into the University’s Images of Research competition. They are now displayed in the public cafe of The Edge building. I also took part in the University’s European Researchers Night event, and did a walk and talk session about this research with members of the public.
Why I included knowledge exchange activities in my research
For me, meaningful research brings together what is academically interesting with what is practically relevant. The process of knowledge exchange gives me a tool to understand what’s important to people outside of academia, and to involve their knowledge, experience and insights in my research.
There was also a requirement from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funding I applied for, that I should be able to demonstrate the impact of my research and I saw knowledge exchange activities as a route to achieving this. As impact was a part of the bid, my budget included funding for me to undertake these activities.
Law firms are very time-constrained and they wouldn't participate in a research study that they didn't find meaningful to organisational members, and so it was fundamentally important to me to find out what they were interested in and cared about through my pilot study.
The benefits of my knowledge exchange activities
The knowledge exchange activities I ran helped me with data analysis and writing up papers. Finding out what is meaningful to participants, and then communicating what I found in the data, and giving them a chance to respond to that, meant I could check the validity of my findings as well as develop more robust and rigorous interpretations of the data.
Bringing academics and practitioners together at the knowledge exchange event has helped my academic career; it created a platform for me to talk about my research. It also led to other opportunities such as organising a sub-plenary at the European Group for Organisations Studies (EGOS) conference.
The event also gave the practitioners a chance to connect with each other and have conversations about their professional lives, what was happening in the industry, and the challenges they faced.
Law firms and legal professionals benefitted from being able to compare their practices with other firms allowing them to reflect on their approach to managing paralegals more broadly.
Another benefit of Knowledge Exchange is that it’s fun!
My tips for other researchers
Look into what support you can get from your department. Our research office provided critical support in organising the event. I also found it helpful to access the social media expertise of the research office in promoting my work to a wider audience. Make sure you build the activities into your research from the outset so that they are resourced.
If you’re putting on an event, consider what timings would best suit the people you want to be there. Mine was a half-day event, in the afternoon, in London, which allowed people from further afield to be able to commit to it without having to stay overnight or take too long out of their busy work schedules.