Why study Law at University if I don’t want to become a lawyer?


My name is Graham Virgo, I’m Professor of
English Private Law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge, and I’m
going to consider the question why you should study law if you don’t want to become a
lawyer. A lot of people who study Law at University
do so because they want to become practising lawyers, whether barristers or solicitors.
But it is not necessary to read Law at University to become a practising lawyer. Equally, studying
Law at University is a legitimate subject for academic study even if you definitely
do not want to become a lawyer or think that you may not become a practising lawyer. That
is because the study of Law at University is not a vocational subject; it is an academic
subject and an intellectual discipline. Even those students who study Law at University
intending to become practising lawyers are required to do additional vocational training
to prepare them for working either as a barrister or a solicitor; for them the study of Law
at University by itself is not sufficient to train them to become lawyers. So why do
such students study law at University and why do others study Law even if they don’t
want to become a lawyer? The answer is fairly similar in both cases, namely that studying
Law at University trains the student to think and write logically and clearly; enables the
student to engage in the critical analysis of the law; enables the student to engage
in a wide variety of different academic disciplines; and finally, it is interesting and intellectually
stimulating. Students who study law at Cambridge end up
doing a wide variety of jobs, other than being a practising lawyer or a teacher or researcher
of law. The study of Law enables students to acquire and develop skills and knowledge
which will be of relevance to business, politics, the civil service, charitable organisations,
international non-governmental organisations, banking, finance, journalism and much, much
more. So what are the advantages of studying Law
at University generally and studying Law at Cambridge specifically?
First, breadth and depth of knowledge. At Cambridge most Law students study 14 papers
over three years. Seven of these are the foundation papers which must be taken if a student wishes
to practice law, but, even if not, they are papers in subjects which are so fundamental
to English law, such as crime, contract and constitutional law, that they ought to be
studied to get a good idea of what the law is about.
All students at Cambridge also study Roman Law in the first year which is an excellent
introduction to legal principles and legal thinking.
Law students then have a choice of 6 other subjects from a very wide list of subjects.
This enables them to specialise or to study subjects which may relate to other academic
disciplines, such as history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, government and politics,
international relations and economics. Students with an expertise and interest in
modern languages can also apply to go to one of four European countries between the second
and third year of their legal students and study law in that foreign country, either
in France, Germany, Spain or Holland. Secondly, learning to think like a lawyer.
Law is an academic discipline which enables students to think like lawyers. This means
that they need to develop skills in thinking logically; in identifying issues in practical
problems; in assessing evidence and in reaching judgments. These are all skills which are
of significance to a wide variety of different jobs and professions. The advantage of the
small group teaching system at Cambridge means that students get a great deal of support
from their teachers in being able to think and analyse the law. You also get a great
deal of support in developing legal writing skills, which emphasises clarity of expression,
conciseness and precision in the use of language; again, skills which are of real benefit to
many careers. Thirdly, encouraging critical engagement.
One of the real benefits of studying Law at university is that the law is not taken at
face value as something which is unchanging, but rather is something which can moulded
and developed. This may be through careful interpretation of the rules or through careful
assessment of old precedents to see how they can be applied to new problems. But Law students
also engage in discussions and thinking about more radical reform of the law. Law students
are encouraged to reflect on the law, to think critically about the law, to consider whether
the law is satisfactory, to identify the policies which underpin particular rules and to suggest
alternatives. Law is consequently a very important and useful subject for students to study if
they are interested in questions of justice, rights, social policy and law reform.
Fourthly, intellectual engagement. Finally, students who study Law at University
engage in an academic discipline with a very long pedigree. They discuss the work of ancient
philosophers and modern theorists; they examine the meaning of justice; they consider the
operation of financial markets, corporations and commerce; they engage with the operation
of law in a European and in a global arena; they analyse social policy and change.
Aristotle said that the ‘Law is reason free from passion.’ He was half right. The law
is reason, but it is full of passion. If you want to find out more about studying
law at the University of Cambridge, you can find a lot more information on the Law Faculty
website.

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