The most important question you’ll have to ask yourself before beginning to study any subject is ‘why do I want to do this?’ And for Law it’s a question that you need to be able to answer on a pretty regular basis.
Schools 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.
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.
So here we join Mr. Dudley, Mr. Stephens, Mr. Brooks and the cabin boy Richard Parker in an open lifeboat, far from land.
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.
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.
So the first reason to study Law…
is that it’s just interesting for its own sake. Law involves all kinds of moral, philosophical and practical questions. I wouldn’t believe anyone who said they weren’t interested to find out what the court decided in R vs Dudley and Stephens.
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.
My second answer to the question ‘why study Law’ is that knowledge of the law is valuable.
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.
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.
My second reason, then, is that there’s high demand for lawyers.
It seems odd that this legal process of ‘offer and acceptance’ is going on, and a contract being created, without us realising what we’re doing.
Thirdly 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.
So as well as being exciting and valuable, law is very useful to know for all kinds of situations.
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 we’ve seen four main reasons to study Law:
- It’s interesting
- It’s valuable
- It’s relevant and influential
- It’s varied
…and in case you’re wondering what happened to Dudley and Stephens, the court did find them guilty of murdering Richard Parker. They were given the death sentence but it was reduced to six-months imprisonment, presumably out of sympathy.
Do you agree with the decision? 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.