The most important question you’ll have to ask yourself before beginning to study any subject is ‘why do I want to do this?’ This question is particularly pertinent if you’re considering Law, a challenging but rewarding path that will inevitably lead you to consider how to become a lawyer.
Schools will ask you why you want to study Law when choosing GCSE or A-Level options. Universities ask when you want to enrol on their degree courses. Firms or chambers will ask why you want to practise law. Most importantly, you’ll have to ask yourself if it’s the subject that you want to spend a lot of your time, and perhaps a lot of your life, exploring.
I’m going to try to sum up all the best things about law, to help you answer these questions for yourself.
Now, apart from the situations I’ve listed above, there is one less positive reason people sometimes ask ‘why would you want to study Law?’ They ask because they think it will be boring. But they’re totally wrong. Let’s prove it. I know a great story which I think is a good place to start.
A real-life story of why studying law is so important
It happens in a remote part of the ocean. There’s nothing inhabitable, nothing for miles. There are no signs of life- none, except one very small ship.
The captain of this small ship is one Mr Dudley. There are two other men on the ship with Mr Dudley. They are called Mr Stephens and Mr Brooks. There’s also a cabin boy on the ship; he’s called Richard Parker (if you’ve ever seen Life of Pi, which is about a boy on a boat with a tiger called Richard Parker, you might get the reference).
Richard Parker is about seventeen years old, and an orphan. He hasn’t been sailing for long.
One evening, the captain tells his men to slow the ship, so they can all rest comfortably through the night. All is well, and the weather is normal. But then, suddenly, without warning and in clear weather, a huge wave crashes against the ship. She’s severely damaged. Mr Dudley sees there’s no hope of repair.
Within seconds the crew are in the lifeboat. Within minutes the ship has gone down.
They have only two cans of turnips for food. There’s no water. As experienced sailors, they know the seawater isn’t safe to drink.
For three days they eat turnips. On the fourth day, they catch a small turtle and eat what they can. By the twelfth day, nothing is left of the turtle. For eight days there is nothing to eat and nothing to drink except the rainwater they can collect in their waxed capes. By the eighteenth day in the lifeboat, the men are becoming starved, parched and frantic. Mr. Dudley and Mr. Stephens hatch a desperate plan. They wonder if there isn’t another source of food to be found. Mr. Brooks won’t agree to it.
The men reach the twentieth day on the lifeboat. Richard Parker is now gravely ill and extremely weak, having drunk sea water out of desperation. The men are all starving. Mr. Dudley and Mr. Stephens know they won’t last the next few days.
Mr. Dudley says a prayer and walks over to the boy lying in the bottom of the boat.Mr. Dudley pulls out a knife. He slits the boy’s throat. The men eat Richard Parker. On the twenty-fourth day, a passing ship rescues the sailors, and the remains of Richard Parker, the cabin boy.
A moral dilemma highlighting the importance of legal knowledge
But after all these grisly events, an interesting and difficult question arises. Are the men guilty of murder?
We know Dudley killed Richard Parker. We know the sailors ate him. We can be sure they all would have died by the time the rescuers arrived- especially the gravely weak and ill cabin boy. So was it murder? What do you think?
This is where the law comes in. Without law, we wouldn’t be able to decide if Dudley and Stephens were guilty, what they were guilty of, and how serious the punishment should be.
5 top reasons to study law
1. The intellectual stimulation of studying law
One of the top reasons to study Law is that it’s just interesting for its own sake. Law involves all kinds of moral, philosophical and practical questions. You’ll find this exemplified not just in cases like R vs Dudley and Stephens but also within the pages of the best law books available.
One of the best reasons for doing anything is that you enjoy it; and if you’re looking for a subject that is constantly throwing up intriguing problems and exciting real-life stories, Law is for you.
2. The financial value and career opportunities in law
While you might not want to study it just for the sake of money, it definitely helps to know that people are willing to pay a lot for the skills you’ve worked so hard for. Many solicitors and barristers earn at least £60,000 a year once qualified, and plenty earn a lot more.
People will always need lawyers to solve problems like that in R v Dudley and Stephens, where the right answer isn’t obvious.
3. The high demand for legal professionals
In commercial situations too, business people need lawyers to write contracts, advise on the legal implications of certain activities, and sometimes to argue for the client’s interests when a deal goes wrong. The law is often so complicated that you need to have done a lot of studying to be able to use it confidently, so all kinds of people need lawyers to help them out. These problems won’t just go away in the future, so we need to be able to solve them.
4. The Practical Application of Law in Everyday Situations
The law has implications for almost everything we do. We come across it every day.
Take for example a trip to the shops. If you go by car, you’re regulated by highway laws for as long as you’re on the road.
When you get there, the shop is responsible for making sure you are kept safe according to the Occupiers’ Liability Act 1957- hence the yellow ‘wet floor’ signs you often see. Having navigated safely to the checkout, you technically make an offer to the cashier, who may accept or decline it (even if your offer is for the marked price, which it almost always is).
But these rules have to exist to make sure a customer isn’t legally bound to buy everything he picks up, and the shop doesn’t have to sell him anything it doesn’t want to (for instance selling medicines to those without a prescription- see PSGB v Boots in which the rule was created.)
What the trip to the shops shows is that the law is everywhere, and you’ll meet it every day. There are lots of interesting things about other subjects like Medicine, Maths or Physics. But you’ll need or use the law far more often. You’d have to be pretty unlucky to need to see a doctor every day. You’d have to be seriously unlucky to need to use Maths every day.
5. The variety and broad spectrum of law
My final reason to encourage you to study Law is that it’s really varied. There are all kinds of law. There’s criminal law, contract law, medical law, family law, international law, human rights law, tax law, media law, sports law…you get the idea. And having studied twelve so far (not necessarily the ones I’ve just mentioned) I’ve discovered that each is completely different. And it isn’t only the subject-matter that changes. Some have lots of cases (judge-made law) and great stories, while others have plenty of legislation (law made by Parliament) and focus more on problem solving.
So whatever interests you have outside of work, and however you like to learn, I guarantee there’s an area of law for you.
If you don’t believe me, just look up the career of Michael Beloff QC. He recently gave a talk in Oxford about his work, in which I discovered he’s been involved in an unbelievable breadth of different areas, from tax to human rights to sports law. If you don’t think law can be varied, just take a look at some of the cases he’s taken part in.
So, why do you want to study law?
Reflecting on the question ‘Why do I want to study law?’ you might consider the following compelling reasons:
- It’s interesting and intellectually stimulating
- It’s valuable and pays well
- It’s a high in-demand career
- It’s relevant in our everyday lives
- It’s varied
Also worth considering is our Oxford law summer school, specifically tailored for teens and high school students. This immersive experience allows you to dive deep into the complex world of law, enhancing your understanding and enabling practical application of your newly acquired knowledge.
The question of why to study law could find an interesting answer in the case of Dudley and Stephens. They were found guilty of murdering Richard Parker and sentenced to death, a verdict later reduced to six months imprisonment, presumably out of sympathy. Does this outcome align with your own verdict? How would you have decided it?
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.