|Studying law offers the opportunity to develop a range of skills and explore many aspects of human life. It 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. It’s easy to see why you don’t have to become a lawyer just because you’ve done a law degree; many choose other paths. A law degree can give you the skills to be a successful lawyer but also a successful producer, politician, manager, journalist, diplomat or police officer; a law degree equips you for almost any profession that requires intellectual strength combined with a practical approach to the world.
So, why bother doing a (demanding) three-year law degree when you could do a (less intense) degree for three years and then do an (intense) one-year law conversion course, to end up seeking the same jobs as those who did a law degree? When couched in these terms, the answer may seem a no-brainer: do the less intense course. We disagree. A law degree may come at the price of fewer lie-ins and mid-morning coffees but most law students combine an active social life and extra-curricular activities with the demands of the course. Most importantly, we think they come out much the better for it. Here are just six advantages of reading law at university:
1. Law students acquire both breadth and depth of legal knowledge
Those reading law typically cover 14 subjects in their degree, whereas students taking a law conversion course normally study only seven core subjects. Students who have an undergraduate law degree have the opportunity both to pursue specialised areas of particular interest beyond the core and also to appreciate the bigger picture: how the law fits together and how the law relates to other subjects, such as politics, economics, 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 earlier.
“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.” – Jonathan Hirst QC, former Chairman of the Bar of England and Wales
2. Law is as complex and multi-faceted as the scope of human endeavour, intellect and emotion
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. However, if you only did a conversion course, you would miss out on learning what Bernard Manning did at a Roundtable dinner and what the supermarket chain Safeways did to the pony-tail wearing Mr Smith. The law reaches into every aspect of human life and a three-year degree plainly offers much a greater opportunity to sample the rich variety of problems and possibilities with which the law engages.
3. Law is more than cramming cases and statutes
Acquiring the skills of thinking like a lawyer comes with practice – lots of practice. Children take years to acquire the skills of communicating, learning from their parents and others not just the vocabulary but also the grammar, intonation, subtleties and structures of the language. The same is true for learning law. Law is the language society uses to define relationships, to explain rights and obligations and to regulate interaction between individuals and society as a whole. Robots can be taught the basics but law students develop an affinity for the subject by being exposed to different writers and arguments, and by exploring the social phenomena and other intellectual disciplines that are implicated in legal problems. In a law degree, you learn to read and interpret the primary sources, put them in context, evaluate them, and make up your own mind. Developing these critical skills and this contextual understanding takes time – more time, we suggest, than is realistically available in a one-year conversion course.
4. A law degree trains students to talk about law simply and effectively, without the stereotypes of legal language
Just as law involves distinctive ways of thinking, it also involves a distinctive vocabulary – a new language. Students learn this language alongside their peers, who are also struggling with its forms and subtleties. They also learn from their teachers, who often use simple vocabulary to explain difficult concepts, preparing law students them to advise clients who will usually not be legally trained. The same goes for writing about law. Writing verbose and unnecessarily complex opinions or other documents might make lawyers feel good about themselves but are of little use to clients; statutes and contracts drafted in such language can create enormous problems. Again, acquiring these skills takes time and exposure to a wide range of speakers and writers – for which a three-year law degree plainly offers much greater scope than a conversion course.
5. Law students acquire skills, not just knowledge
Many law students participate, for example, in mooting competitions, where they develop skills of oral advocacy, or 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 business.
6. Cost and time
Three years studying law followed by one year of vocational training is cheaper, and leads you into the profession more quickly, than studying another subject for three years, then taking a one-year conversion course and then the further year’s vocational training. These considerations are practical but very real.
Consistently with what we say above about studying law, we encourage you, of course, to listen to competing views and to make up your own mind. If you have time, you might be interested to watch a debate held in Cambridge in 2013 on the topic, “Those who wish to practise law should not study law at university”. The speakers were The Rt Hon. Lord Sumption, a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom who read history and became an academic before becoming a leading barrister and judge, and Professor Graham Virgo, Professor of English Private Law and currently Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education in the University.