Law students sometimes embark on their chosen course without knowing what exactly they’ve let themselves in for. High on enthusiasm, they arrive at uni harbouring fantasies about becoming the next Atticus Finch – but the truth is unlikely to be so grand. So let’s sort some of the facts from the fiction.
You need to study law as your first degree if you want to be a lawyer
A law degree is often the initial step on the path to a legal career, introducing students to the core subjects. But it isn’t really essential for aspiring lawyers. Indeed the Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption advocates that law should be offered only as a second degree, as it is in the US. In a recent speech, he said studying law was “not a particularly good training for the handling of evidence, or for acute social observation, or for the exercise of analytical judgments about facts”.
For those set upon a legal career, he suggested, “the study of a different subject at a formative time of one’s life is personally enriching”.
So you may prefer to study a different subject, to add another string to your bow. If you take this route, however, you must also undertake the one-year graduate diploma in law (GDL).
Patrick Hulley, 21, a final year law student at Newcastle University, warns that the GDL is “more intense and stressful” than a law degree. And at a cost of £7,000 to £10,000, it will add to the already huge expense of legal training. Though there is one pay-off: the core subjects may be fresher in your mind when starting one of the professional courses (the BPTC or LPC).
You’ll spend your life in the library
Before starting his degree course, 38-year-old mature student Marc Tyler, now in his final year at Liverpool John Moores University, had assumed that studying law would require developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of English law, and memorising thousands of pieces of legislation and cases.
“I thought it would mean spending endless hours in the library searching for that one ‘killer’ case that would turn the world on its head, or at least get me top marks,” he says.
The reality, that 75% of his work is done away from the lecture hall or law library, was a “pleasant shock” for Tyler. “My romantic notion of nights spent looking through dusty tomes in the library were a little far-fetched, given that everything is online.”
Jade Foley, 19, a second-year law student at Brunel University and president of the university law society, agrees that this was the “biggest misconception”.
“We have eight hours of lectures and four hours of seminars a week. On top of that, I do up to four hours of study a day, which leaves plenty of time to socialise and get involved in extracurricular activities like mooting and debating,” she says.
The key, says Rhys Payne, a 25-year-old third-year student at the University of Law, who finds time for a job and a social life in addition to his studies, is to be organised and ensure you have balance.
It’s all boys, boys, boys
The fact that most law firm partners and heads of chambers are men, and so are most of those holding senior judicial posts, gives a misleading impression of people seeking to enter the profession.
Patrick Hulley says he finds himself “in the minority” of law students at Newcastle University – and when on work experience most other students he meets are women.
Figures from the Law Society show that more than three-quarters of students accepted on university law degrees in 2014 were female.
You can’t do a law degree if you have children
Before he embarked on his studies, as a father of two (and later, three), Tyler was warned not to waste his money. He would not be able to do it with kids in tow.
He acknowledges that combining parenthood and legal study is no stroll in the park. “It involves long hours and juggling many balls,” he says, but it is made much easier by the fact that course materials are available electronically and much of the learning is “self-led”.
You’ll bag a job at the end of it, no sweat
For students looking to become barristers or solicitors, the challenge of bagging a pupillage or training contract is increasingly tough. So perhaps it’s best to broaden your scope: law is an interesting and well-respected degree that could certainly help you get a job in another sector.
Students with law degrees are highly attractive to non-legal employers. A poll of 500 UK businesses by Marketing Minds showed that businesses value law graduates for their “transferable skills”, “aptitude for learning” and “strong leadership and communication abilities”.
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