Life as a Law Student: 7 Things You Really Have to Know
About the Author
Samantha Love read Law at Merton College, Oxford, and is currently following the BCL course.
“I’m studying law at university”, or even “I’m applying to study law at university” sounds great, doesn’t it?
However, whilst we have all heard a little about studying law at university, whether through family, friends or films, it is difficult to know what it really does involve – and there’s no shortage of stories out there, from the mostly accurate to the utterly fantastical. This article should debunk a few myths, confirm a few and make sure you know what you are signing up for when you fill in that application form! It also includes a little advice to help you settle into law student life that bit quicker. Law is a great subject to study at university but it does have its challenges: here’s what you can expect.
1. There is a lot of reading.
Just to get the scary one out of the way first, it is difficult to explain how much reading a law degree involves other than to say that there are a lot of law books! Law students get a reputation for clocking up the library hours because each week you need to learn what the law actually is and academics’ opinions of it from scratch, and neither of these will be particularly short. There is definitely an art to managing the reading lists and you will get all the advice you need from older students when you first arrive, but it does take a while to get used to the pace of learning. That said, by the end of your first term you won’t believe how quickly you can pick up the key themes of an article or find the important passages from a case. Just be ready for the inevitable long nights when you need to stay up getting through an endless reading list. They do happen but they are (almost) only as common as you want them to be; you are never set more work than it is feasible to do if you manage your time well. Self-imposing a schedule for getting reading done, plus whatever other assignments you have been set, is a habit to get into very quickly.
2. There is no single ‘eureka!’ moment, but it does all come together eventually.
Certain areas of law, particularly contract and tort, deal with different types of human action but are so similar in places that they often ‘run out’ just as the other one starts. As you usually learn only a few topics at a time you may not understand one fully until you have covered the next one. It is absolutely normal to feel a little like you’re in the dark to begin with, although universities try to organise the courses so that the first year exams at least can stand on their own. Criminal law, for instance, makes a good first year subject because it is easy to get to grips with the ideas and it doesn’t overlap too much with any other area. It is just important to know that if you study Land law before Trusts/Equity, it is not a problem if you don’t fully understand what a trust is because that will come next.
3. There is a rat race, but you don’t need to join it (straight away).
The law students aren’t considered the quickest off the mark for getting involved in applications and internships early on in their degree, but it’s a close one! More and more law firms are offering placements and taster days during the first year of university so it is tempting to think that you need to get involved in deciding your career choice right from day one. If you are thinking about becoming a solicitor it is worth applying to these if you want to be ahead of the game, but the big one is the summer vacation schemes at the end of your penultimate year. If you are thinking about the Bar then the more mini-pupillages you have under your belt when you fill in your application form at the beginning of your final year the better, and some chambers will expect a certain number as a minimum. However, most of this kicks off at the beginning of second year so you do have time to settle into legal study before you need to think about applications. Don’t forget that there are other options too — charity work, civil service, interning for a while until you decide on a career path (if you can afford it!) or further study are all worthwhile alternatives. It’s also worth thinking about going to a local or regional firm or chambers if that appeals to you, and for this you may have to send letters asking to go and shadow someone rather than applying to an organised scheme. All these alternatives are no less competitive but require you to look further afield than your Law Society e-mails, which may tend to focus on the big London (and increasingly international) opportunities. Your tutors, personal advisor, careers service or equivalent will give you plenty of advice about careers, and where to start looking for opportunities in a field you’re interested in. Make sure you think seriously about where you want to start off — it is easy to be swept along with the crowd!
It is also just a fact of life that the legal sector, like anywhere at the moment, is very competitive for finding a job. Keep on top of your work, get involved with extra-curriculars and apply to any placements or schemes which may interest you so that your CV looks as good as it possibly can when you get to more serious applications.
4. You need to sweat the small stuff.
The ‘sharp mind’ you need for university study comes in different varieties, and each degree demands a particular mix of certain skills. Law requires both absolute command of the details of legislation and cases, and a wider view of how different areas interlock and what they (aim to) achieve. This is shown most clearly in the two main types of examination question. Problem questions require you to apply the law to very specific (and sometimes outright preposterous) factual patterns and explain why in this specific set of circumstances a piece of legislation or principle of law would/could be applied in a certain way. You need to know the legislation and the case law, because although you may be given a copy of the legislation it wastes time if you’re using it to do anything other than check minor points. Equally if you don’t know part of the case law in an area that can lose you marks or narrow down the number of questions you could potentially answer. Essay questions require you to make a broad point using specific examples, so you need to have a whole arsenal of examples to hand.
Basically, you need to remember a lot of things! And you need to be prepared to sit down and learn cases, and at the very least the structure and key clauses of the relevant legislation so that you can find it in the statute book during the exam. It is absolutely normal to have legislation and case summaries stuck up round your wall during exam season (rent agreements permitting!). But because all this knowledge also needs to be grounded in the wider picture for the purposes of essay questions this isn’t just an exercise in memorising names, which makes the process a lot easier. An Oxford examiners’ report commented a few years ago (in light of students forgetting the names of key cases) that if you have done the work properly then remembering case names should be no more difficult than learning the names of breakfast cereals. I may not know hundreds of breakfast cereals, but it’s true that you learn a lot of small details without thinking about it.
5. Everyone is going to ask you for legal advice. And you won’t want to give it.
Somewhat ironically, the more law you know the less confident you become definitively stating what the legal position in a certain area is. You are, after all, focusing on the more controversial and uncertain areas of law so it is easy to forget that some are actually quite simple and clear-cut. There also comes a week where you learn about liability for giving advice and accepting responsibility for it being correct. It’s fairly well-accepted that casual remarks in social situations don’t come within this category but as soon as law students learn these cases they immediately stop wanting to give any form of legal advice!
All this of course assumes that you know the area of law your friends are asking about in practical detail in the first place, which usually isn’t the case because law degrees are more theoretical than practical. No matter how many times you try to explain this to your friends however, you will still be asked. It’s something you will find frustrating, but it won’t stop you from asking the medical students about your twinging knee so it’s just something to resign yourself to I’m afraid.
6. It can be absolutely fascinating — especially when you think it won’t be.
Perhaps the really big thing to know about an English law degree is that there are subjects which (i) you have to study (ii) you expect you won’t enjoy. This is an unfortunate side-effect of the fact that law degrees are at heart vocational and so you study certain areas which are crucial to the smooth functioning of society but aren’t considered too glamorous. It’s worth noting that some people do come to university with a professed love for commercial law and that’s great, but it does seem to be the norm to start university dead set on being a human rights barrister. However, because you have to learn these topics in significant depth you do find yourself getting far more interested than you ever plan to. What can seem like a fairly technical subject such as land registration is actually vitally important to individual people when you think about it — many cases on the topic end up with someone being evicted from their family home, or allowed to stay despite the aspiring purchaser having no idea that they had a legal interest in the house as it was not entered in the register.
There is a frame of mind to adopt here, and it’s absolutely central to ensuring that you enjoy studying law. Find the interesting element of something which doesn’t originally appeal to you — there will always be one, often the ‘human interest’ or political angle. Make as much of it as is possible as interesting to you as is possible. And resign yourself to the fact that you’ll just have to learn the rest!
7. Being a law student is what you want it to be.
Perhaps I’m giving the impression that law students spend their whole lives in the library learning statutes back to front, and that when they do emerge it’s to go to networking events, apply to careers or to sit exams. This just isn’t true. As with any other subject, university is exactly what you make of it and that will invariably (and should!) involve meeting some of your best friends and many of your future colleagues, getting involved in as many societies as you can make time for and having the odd quiet night in. There is a core amount of work which has to be done, but as a humanities student you’re in the enviable position of being able to manage your own timetable to a certain extent. Make the most of it! Specifically for law students, there are also plenty of extra-curricular activities which can be really rewarding for yourself and others. If you’d like to get involved in pro bono work then most law schools have a scheme running, really do make sure you try some mooting (mock appeal trial, where you pretend to be a barrister) because even though it’s quite scary it does wonders for your public speaking, and make the most of any opportunity to get the sort of legal experience you’re interested in during the holidays. There is no single ‘law degree experience’, much as there’s no single ‘university experience’; choose what you want to make your priorities over the three year period, as long as you always make time for your work.
Like any subject at university, studying law has its ups and downs. However, if you’re interested in the subject and able to motivate yourself to work sensible hours then there are definitely more positives and it is a fantastic subject to study for three (or four) years.