A few years ago Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption caused a bit of a stir by suggesting that aspiring lawyers would be better off taking degrees in history or maths before studying law. "I think that it is best not to read law as an undergraduate," he told Counsel magazine.
On the flip side, many people believe that a law degree is the best way to get the depth of knowledge and specialist skills needed in the profession, and it’s the quickest route in. Jonathan Hirst QC, a leading barrister and former Chairman of the Bar, has said: "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."
There is no right answer, but if you’re facing this dilemma here are some arguments for and against, which might help you work out the right answer for you:
5 reasons why it's better to study law
- You can cover the key topics in far more depth, and benefit from more time to think about and discuss them. You have the opportunity to think more critically about the law by studying it as an academic rather than vocational subject. You will also have more opportunity to practice legal skills like making an evidence-based argument, researching and presenting, and benefit from things like mooting competitions and pro bono work. You will learn to think, write and speak like a lawyer, and will start to analyse things and engage with content in a way that will help you to formulate legal arguments. These skills don’t always come naturally, but by studying law you benefit from more time to develop them and the support of tutors and lecturers.
- If law interests you then this degree will be interesting. If you feel that a long-term career in law might be right for you, then a law degree might be a fascinating way to spend three years. Rather than just learn the basics of key cases you can delve much deeper into the stories behind them. And you can often take specialist modules – media law, the history of law, patent law, criminology, philosophy – topics that are unlikely to form part of a one-year law conversion. You’ll also find out if law isn’t what you want to do after all, saving you the extra work and cost of completing the GDL (one-year post-grad law conversion course) before you find out.
- You’ll get a better idea of where you might specialise in the future. Then you’ll be in a good position to apply to firms will a clear focus on your main interest-areas, a better awareness of the type of firm you might enjoy working for, and more confidence in answering interview questions around career motivation and what you can offer.
- It's a solid, well-respected degree that doesn't limit you career-wise. If you do end up applying for training contracts at law firms, a law degree shows a commitment to the profession and proven knowledge and skills. If you don’t end up becoming a lawyer, a law degree demonstrates intelligence, communication skills, time management and someone who isn’t afraid of picking a tough subject.
- If you want to be a lawyer, it’s the most efficient use of time and the cheapest route in. You don't have to do the GDL as you have already studied the seven foundation subjects as part of your degree. Not having to pay for the GDL will save you something in the region of £10k if you study in London – not an insignificant sum – and a year of your life.
5 reasons why it's better to study something else
- Law firms and chambers appreciate your broader perspective and interests. Magic Circle firm Allen & Ovary say “…we are a lot more interested in what kind of lawyer you can become than what you have studied at university. Last year, around half of the trainees that started with us studied subjects other than law at university.” Firms are interested in students from all degree subjects. Slaughter and May claims to employ solicitors who studied over 100 different degree courses - historians, biologists, linguists, psychologists, chemists and many others. Peter Crisp, chief executive and dean of BPP Law School, says "In certain areas having a science background is hugely helpful, such as intellectual property and patent work, because the nature of the work is particularly complex." Employers like the fact that you've actively chosen a law career and are willing to make the effort to do further study in order to achieve your career goals.
- You law knowledge will be more recent, as you’ll be learning the most vital legal concepts just before you start the LPC/BPTC and your training contract or pupillage. Law students may have more time to study the seven key subjects in depth, but in some cases by the time they start employment several years may have elapsed since they last considered them. The GDL is more intense, but your knowledge will be fresher.
- You get the chance to learn in depth about something else that interests you before you commit to your career. There's no rush - you'll have plenty of time to learn about law. Your undergraduate degree is your opportunity to immerse yourself in a subject and learn about it from genuine, sometimes world-leading experts. Once you start work these chances don’t come along very often, so if you’re passionate about medieval history, ergonomics or statistical analysis seize the moment.
- Your broader interests can benefit your career later on. Law plays a part in almost every industry and sector, so once you’ve qualified you might have a chance to use your history of art degree working for a firm that specialises in art and cultural property; your physics degree to specialise in patent law; your media arts degree to work for a media and entertainment firm. And don’t forget, as well as the law firms most large-ish companies employ lawyers so there’s a huge range of specialised in-house opportunities out there too.
- More important than subject is grades - if you'll get better grades on another subject, do that. It’s well reported that firms look first and grades, and then at the rest. "Firms look closely at how you've performed in each module of your undergraduate degree," says Elizabeth Cope, head of trainee recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer."So it's better to get high marks in a subject you enjoy than lower marks in something you're not interested in."
- Think carefully about what you want to get out of university. While a law degree doesn’t necessarily mean no social life and all-nighters in the library, it is renowned for being one of the hardest degrees with more timetabled lectures and self study required than many other subjects. If your vision of university involves a greater balance of study vs socialising then try and do some research with current students at the university before you commit.
A good compromise?
If you’re still undecided, what about a joint honours degree? Law can be combined with a huge range of subjects, from philosophy to French, and you might get a year abroad too. Grade requirements to get onto joint honours courses are often lower, with fewer applicants and smaller cohorts, yet joint honours students still benefit from the same GDL exemptions and employment prospects as those studying “straight” law.
Choosing whether to study law or not is a big decision, so it helps to conduct some serious research. University open days will give you a chance to meet current students, and taster courses like those run by the University of London will give you some useful insights. Law graduates and non-law graduates can all become top lawyers, or anything else, so rest assured, plenty of doors are open whatever you decide.