When I graduated law school earlier this year, as part of my usual delayed process of unpacking significant life moments, I began to consider what I had achieved. It’s not the first time I have had to ponder this question. I was the one in a family of doctors and a pharmacist who bucked the trend and made the decision to study law and the arts.
I would occasionally be asked by family and friends, what is it I actually do, and what I was learning. My short answer, delivered in true Derek Zoolander fashion was often “I learn to read and write real good!” My attempt at ‘blue steel’ to polish my point indicated the obvious humour in my answer, however in all seriousness, there were many occasions where I chose painless comedy over a longer and more complex task of justification.
It’s hard to explain the legal profession. I wasn’t learning how to design a building or cure a disease, I was learning how to navigate the many invisible lines in the sand that made up the accepted rules and behaviours in society. After many years of thought, I think I have come up with three more persuasive reasons that will hopefully offer the doubtful law student some comfort and conviction in their choice:
I accept this as a bold claim, and I should characterise this statement as an abstract application of the scientific method. At primary school, we are taught that science is the process of asking a question, carrying out research, constructing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis and drawing conclusions based on the results.
The law is a product of the same process. In core law subjects we often consider this process in reverse. We start with the legal rule, read the cases that have tested it, then perhaps the jurisprudence and policy that explain the academic and research perspective of the rule, and lastly most importantly, the social wrong or problem which posed the question in the first place. For law students our significant scientific breakthroughs come in the form of a landmark judgement or an important legislative reform.
In more theoretical subjects, such as legal theory, criminology and international law, the scientific process is applied more traditionally as we consider the complex relationships between the law, morality and social norms.
What do Sherlock and law students have in common? A keen eye for detail, evidence and assumptions. One of the first things you learn as a law student is the difference between a fact and an opinion, and then between a conclusion and an assumption. This not only makes us more discerning and compelling advocates in argument, but it gives us the unique skills to contemplate the vast ocean of media that drowns us day to day. Ok, so granted we might not be solving actual murders, but the task of picking a part a politician’s spiel on Q&A is arguably just as gruesomely gratifying.
The rules of admissibility and evidence are not only useful in the courtroom, the habitual cognitive practice of considering ‘hearsay’, ‘relevance’ and ‘fact over opinion’ when gathering our thoughts allows us to be more concise, effective and persuasive communicators. Conversely, it also equips us with the ability to think critically when we are being communicated to. As a game of Cluedo poses a variety of scenarios on an agreed set of facts, we as law students are equally able to identify the varying perspectives of a single statement and explore and test each accordingly.
Lastly, as law students we are learning how to be modern day philosophers. One does not have to be a bearded ancient Greek to consider philosophical questions, one just has to be active in the task of considering the meaning behind the way things are.
Take for example the study of corporate law and the phenomenon of the ‘Corporate Personhood’. If you were to explore the psychological, social, moral and ethical purposes that the creation of a ‘separate legal identity’ through incorporation serves, it would no doubt be an interesting exercise. And in doing so, one would be able to understand the justifications and meaning behind the legal framework which creates, governs and limits a corporation. Learning about director’s duties, agency and associated issues such as insider trading, inadvertently tap into those philosophical questions and thoughts, which as law students we are actively encouraged to consider.
Most importantly, as law students we do not think in isolation and write manifestos and treatises fit only for academia. We are on the ground, thinking and contributing to very real discussions and responding to very real problems.
And on top of all that, when all is said and done, studying law is just actually kinda fun.