What’s the best way to find out about a subject? Read about it. But how do you know what to read? Good question. Law is notoriously complicated and inaccessible, so it’s hard to know where to start. For that reason, I’ve drawn up a list of the ten best books you should read if you think you might want to study Law.
I think it’s really important to keep it simple and interesting when you’re beginning to explore a subject, so I’ve kept away from dry, dense and detailed texts. In fact, a lot of the texts suggested below are fiction books.
The list will focus on books that I hope will show you what the law is all about, without making your brain hurt. I hope that when you’ve read them all, you’ll really have a feel for what Law involves. So, on to number one!
1. About Law – Tony Honoré
This is the first book I read when I decided I wanted to study Law. It’s also the only one I put on my personal statement when applying to Oxford. I think it proves that it’s better to read and enjoy a small number of high-quality books than to show off with hundreds of things you don’t understand.
About Law is probably the most basic introduction to law that you can get. Tony Honoré is a very well-renowned legal academic, who has managed to condense his knowledge to provide an introduction to the law that is both simple and interesting. He discusses all kinds of topics, for instance, the purpose of law, how it works (in simple terms) and he also gives a basic introduction to the English legal system.
It is strongly suggested that you read this book first, and read it even if you read nothing else on this list. It starts at the basics, and is a short book, but by the time you’ve finished it you’ll know far more than when you started.
2. Landmarks in the Law – Lord Denning
Another fairly basic book, Lord Denning’s Landmarks in the Law is a fascinating run-through of some of the biggest events in English law. Both legally and historically, it’s extremely valuable.
Another reason for recommending this book is the skill and prestige of its author. Lord Denning was arguably one of the most influential judges there has ever been. His focus was on making the law accessible to normal people, and he did it with exceptional talent. His judgments are unparalleled, but if you can’t access them, this book is the next best thing.
3. Letters to a Law Student – Nicholas McBride
This is a collection of ‘letters’ to a fictional student about what it’s like to study Law, and it also gives some basic explanation of the legal system.
The main focus is on telling you how to study effectively, and the advice it gives is pretty good. McBride gives all kinds of sensible and useful advice, from general topics like how much work you should be doing, to more specific things like how to make notes on a case.
4. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
Reading should be interesting as well as useful, so here’s the first fiction book on the list!
Dickens was arguably one of the greatest storytellers to have lived, and Bleak House is often cited as his very best work. The story revolves around a court case concerning a number of wills, and most of it takes place in the legal areas of London. Not only is it one of the greatest books ever written, but it has particular relevance to Law students because it gives an insight into the character and tradition of the legal profession.
5. Learning the Law – Glanville Williams
Similar to About Law at number one, this book is a slightly more detailed explanation of the English legal system. It’s quite old, so some parts of it are out of date, but most are still accurate and Williams explains things very well.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
A second fiction book, Lee’s novel is about racism and society in 1930s America. Like Bleak House, it’s a classic in its own right. The specific relevance to Law students is that its main character, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer tasked with defending a man shunned by everyone else.
Finch represents the legal ideals of justice and equality, and the book is a great source of inspiration for those wondering why law is important, and why rights must be protected. Legal heroes (even fictional ones) remind us why we’re studying the law.
7. Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories – Thomas Grant
From a fictional hero to a real one, this is a recent book about the numerous, thrilling cases that criminal barrister Jeremy Hutchinson has been involved in. From drug smuggling to the ‘Profumo affair’, Hutchinson represented some of the most notorious characters to have appeared in the courts in the last century.
His techniques and his level of success in court are incredibly impressive. I recommend you read this for a taste of the thrill and importance of life as an advocate.
8. Winning Arguments – Jay Henirichs
Keeping with the theme of advocacy, you might like to read Jay Heinrichs’ Winning Arguments. The theme of the book needs little explanation but has particular relevance to Law students. Much of the work you will do as either a student or a lawyer will involve coming up with arguments that appear to be correct (even if they aren’t), to give both sides fair representation.
Heinrichs’ book is full of good advice on how to structure your ideas and use clever rhetorical techniques, and it’s also light-hearted and fun to read.
9. Lord Denning, A Life – Iris Freeman
Linking back to some of the earlier books on the list, this biography is worth a read as inspiration for any aspiring lawyers. I’ve already given a brief insight into the importance of Lord Denning and the uniqueness of his writings, so I thought I’d include his biography in case you’d like to find out more.
As well as being a great judge, Lord Denning is an important figure because he rose to such a lofty position from a very poor family, who was not involved in the law at all. While many English judges have been wealthy or even aristocratic, Lord Denning worked his way from humble beginnings to the position of Master of the Rolls (the second-highest judge in the land, and the master of the Court of Appeal). Nor did he forget his past when he reached these heights, and his approach to the law proves it.
I recommend this book because it shows that you can become a great lawyer no matter where you come from.
10. On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
My last recommendation is not actually one book, but a choice of three.
Jurisprudence is the study of the philosophy of law (or why and how it exists), and Ronald Dworkin, Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart, and John Stuart Mill were some of the pre-eminent thinkers in this subject.
Mill believed that the most important thing in society was the liberty of the individual. He said that the only justification for law was to prevent harm to others. His most famous work is an essay called On Liberty.
Hart thought that law was simply a collection of man-made rules, which we created and we can choose to follow or ignore. He wrote The Concept of Law.
Dworkin, meanwhile, felt that law was a product of morality, and that law cannot exist without it. His ideas are therefore directly opposed to those of Hart, and the two authors argued about this for many years (the question remains unresolved). You can find Dworkin’s ideas in his book, Law’s Empire.
The reason I’ve suggested you choose one of these three books is that they’re all very academic. If you’ve ever wondered why we have law and how it works, there’s no better place to answer those questions than through these books. But as this is a very complicated subject, the books are naturally very complicated. I recommend you work out which of the above three ideas you think you agree with and read the corresponding book.
I hope that’s given you plenty of ideas, and plenty of inspiration!
If you’re interested in Jurisprudence, below are three useful links.
Alex is an undergraduate Law student at Somerville College, Oxford. He is particularly interested in taxation law and aspires to practise at the Revenue Bar. In his spare time, he likes to keep fit and enjoys going to the gym.