Law degrees versus non-law degrees: UKSC Blog editors have their say
26 Thursday Jul 2012
A couple of weeks ago, Lord Sumption expressed the controversial view that, for aspiring solicitors and barristers, reading a non-law degree at university is preferable to a law degree. Two editors of the UKSC Blog, one a law graduate and the other not (but both now solicitors), continue the debate.
I agree with Lord Sumption that it is ”very unfortunate” more lawyers in England and Wales cannot speak a foreign language. However, whether or not the legal profession should be multi-lingual is a separate debate to whether it is better to read a non-law degree over a law degree. Many of my colleagues who read a ‘non-law’ degree at university do not speak a foreign language and many of us ‘law-degreers’ do.
There is no denying that industry knowledge is invaluable in this career but your French degree is unlikely to help when you are presented with a case about an overturned oil rig off the coast of China. That is why, as Lord Sumption says, the best lawyers are those who can quickly decipher the facts and analyse the evidence. And in my opinion, a law degree is as good as any in teaching you these abilities.
In most law degrees, the core legal subjects (equity and trusts, tort, contract, etc.) are dealt with in your first and second years and students can choose modules to study in their third year. I took a Counter-Terrorism module as part of my law degree which dealt with dilemmas of religion, politics, security and freedom (with a little bit of law too). It must also be said that there are a multitude of factors which make a person cultured and, unfortunately, many of these skills cannot be taught (well, certainly not by the time a person is at degree level anyway!).
We also shouldn’t forget the issue at the forefront of any struggling student’s mind… money. The full-time GDL course at the College of Law in London currently costs £9,310 and this is before you take in account rent and other living costs for your extra year as a student. If someone wants to learn more about law and is an aspiring barrister or solicitor, I struggle to see why they shouldn’t just read a law degree and save themselves the extra time and expense of the conversion course.
I studied music, so did not read the history, classics or mathematics degrees recommended by Lord Sumption. Still, my degree did involve some of the skills that Lord Sumption considers key for legal practice, being analysis, logic and reasoning. However, most so-called ‘academic’ degrees will involve most, if not all, of those skills. Further, some of my peers at university who studied law were better classical musicians, and kept up with ‘culture’ in their spare time far more avidly than I.
I can speak and read another language but this is not thanks to my degree and, unless you study languages, it is difficult to see how reading history at undergraduate level is going to provide you with better language skills than reading law.
On a personal level, I am glad I did another degree before converting to law – if nothing else, it is a conversation piece! However, I don’t think it gives me any edge in terms of analysing facts and applying the law to those facts over my law graduate counterparts. In retrospect, what I find more beneficial in practice than a non-law degree is the three years I spent in industry prior to commencing my legal studies. This ticks all the boxes (at least on paper) in terms of the much-coveted ‘commercial awareness’ that aspiring lawyers are expected to demonstrate.
The point Sophie makes about money is a valid one but if you can secure a sponsored training contract (which I accept is getting more and more difficult) and have a keen interest in another subject, then I would recommend studying that as a degree before launching into your legal career. I had considered studying an LLB but wanted to pursue my musical ambitions first, knowing that the system was such that I could subsequently enter a ‘profession’ (be it law, medicine, accountancy, etc.) even if I did not do an obviously related subject at undergraduate level. As a result, my degree is a factor that differentiates me from my legal peers (although I know a surprising number of music graduates who have ended up as lawyers) and probably means that I approach issues in a slightly different way. Obviously, in terms of substance and content, my degree is completely irrelevant most of the time.
Still, a non-law degree could have more specific application in practice than just being useful for the development of ‘soft skills’ and for having done something a bit different first. For example, many IP practitioners, in particular patent litigators, find a scientific background extremely useful. Similarly, I know a few mathematics graduates who now specialise in corporate tax.
Although the law versus non-law debate will endure for as long as the system of law conversion exists, there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ route into legal practice – one size does not fit all and in terms of your chances of excelling in practice, it is not so much what you do but how you do it that counts.