So why study law at university?
Law is a subject where you can develop a range of skills and explore many aspects of human life. Studying Law as an undergraduate gives you the chance to sharpen your mind, strengthen your understanding and deepen your experience across the full range of humanities and social sciences. You acquire both breadth of understanding and depth in the areas that interest you most.
Law should therefore appeal to those who want to develop both abstract thinking and practical problem-solving. And it’s easy to see why you don’t have to become a lawyer just because you’ve done a Law degree; many choose not to. A Law degree can give you the skills to be a successful lawyer, but also a successful producer, politician, manager, journalist, police officer or almost any other profession that requires intellectual strength combined with a practical approach to the world.
But why bother doing a (demanding) three year Law degree when you could do a (less intense) subject for three years, have time for a social life, and then do an (intense) one-year conversion course to Law and get the same jobs as those who did a Law degree? When couched in these terms, the answer seems like a no-brainer: do the less intense subject.
We disagree. We think a Law degree has a number of advantages.
- First, ‘doing’ Law is more than cramming cases and statutes.
Acquiring the skills of thinking like a lawyer comes with practice, lots of practice. Just as children take years to acquire the skills of communicating in their mother tongue — learning from their parents and others, not just the vocabulary but also the grammar, the intonation, the subtleties, the structures of the language — the same is true for learning law. Robots can be taught the basics but law students develop an affinity for the subject by being exposed to different writers, critics, disciplines, arguments. On a Law degree, you read the primary sources and make up your own mind. For instance, was it really right to prosecute a fifteen year old for his completely consensual relationship with another fifteen year old, but not to prosecute her? Developing these critical skills takes time, more time than is available in a one-year conversion course.
- Second, law students acquire both breadth and depth of legal knowledge.
They will typically have covered 14 subjects during their Law degree, whereas a student doing a Law conversion course will only study the seven foundation subjects. Students who have an undergraduate Law degree can appreciate the bigger picture of how law fits together and, given the range of options available, how law relates to other subjects such as legal history, criminology and philosophy. We are often asked what makes a successful lawyer. We offer a variety of answers: the ones you would expect — intelligence, determination, drive, hard work; and one you might not — imagination. Creative arguments are derived from thinking laterally around a problem, and the ability to do that is often related to breadth of legal knowledge. A particular line of reasoning in a case involving commercial contracts might be inspired by something you learned in a labour law seminar 20 years before.
- Third, a Law degree gives students the possibility to learn to talk about law simply and effectively, rather than fall into the stereotypes of legal language.
Law involves a new vocabulary, a new language. Students practise on their peers who are also struggling with this new language. They are exposed to their teachers — world leaders in their fields — who often use simple vocabulary to explain difficult concepts, and this prepares them to advise clients who will often not be legally trained. The same goes for writing about law. Verbose and unnecessarily complex opinions might make lawyers feel good about themselves but are of little use to a client. Again, acquiring these skills takes time.
Fourth, Law can be dry and technical but it can also open a window on aspects of human life that you were previously unaware of.
Yes, the conversion course lets you glimpse the delights of the window-climbing burglar dressed only in his socks and the snail in a ginger beer bottle, but if you only did a conversion course you would miss out on learning what Bernard Manning did at a Roundtable dinner and what Safeways, the supermarket chain, did to the pony-tail wearing Mr Smith.
- Fifth, Law students acquire other skills as well.
For example, many participate in mooting competitions, where they can develop skills in making oral presentations. Many participate in pro bono societies where they can give legal advice and support to real people with real problems. Such skills prepare students not only for careers as lawyers but also for diverse careers in policy-related fields, such as government, international organisations, the voluntary sector, and in business.
- And finally, there is the cost.
Three years studying Law followed by one year of vocational training is cheaper than doing another subject for three years plus a conversion course and then the vocational training — not to be sniffed at in these straitened times.
These reasons would argue strongly for students who wish to become practising lawyers to do a Law degree. A Law degree may come at the price of some fewer lie-ins and mid-morning coffees, but most law students manage to combine an active social life and extra-curricular activities with the demands of a course. And they come out the better for it.
Don’t just take our word for it. Law firms often say that, generally, they prefer to hire law students for the reasons outlined above. Jonathan Hirst QC says:
“In my view, pupils who have done an undergraduate Law degree start with a very considerable advantage over those who have tried to cram in everything in less than a year. A Law degree allows a student to gain a broader and more mature understanding of the subject”
We couldn’t put it better ourselves.