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2009 competition

How does the reality of studying law match your expectations?

Our 2009 student essay competition was won by James Tanner (University of Oxford) – read his essay below.

The competition, part of the Higher Education Academy’s Student Awards, attracted over 50 entries from law schools around the UK. James won an iPod Touch and was invited to attend the Higher Education Academy 2009 Conference.

Reading law and drawing elephants

In my first week at university, my head tutor summoned the incoming law students to her book-filled office. After learning our names and welcoming us, she began an intimidating speech, giving the impression that she had given it many times before. On her lap lay a children’s book. She held it open towards us and began flipping through the pages. On each, there was a drawing of an elephant, yet each picture was completely different. One elephant was upside down, one was purple, one was an outline, one was as Picasso would draw it. As she flipped through the pages, she told us that this book was the best metaphor for the studying law that she knew.

Painting elephants was a far cry from what I had imagined my degree would be. My expectations came from many sources, from hearsay from older friends who had already begun studying law, to (I’ll admit it) “Legally Blonde”. I knew, or thought I did, that the workload was going to be backbreaking, picturing late nights staring into thick, leather-bound books. I pictured exams asking “what case ruled x” or “what statute governs y”, necessitating Herculean memorization. Anyhow, I did not really understand the point my tutor was trying to make, and could not square the elephant book and whatever she meant it symbolised with what I thought my degree was going to be like.

Then came the first reading list, deceptively short but filled with arcane notation (what did [1893] 1 QB 256 mean?) and no clear guidance what to look for in the cases, articles and statutes I was told to read. A short introductory lecture explained the basics of how a judgment was structured, but I still did not know quite what to do with all this material. The first couple of lectures did nothing but get me more confused: what were you actually meant to do with these mountains of information? Was that what my tutor meant with the pachyderm pictures, that the workload would be elephantine?

My biggest surprise, though, was how almost no concept ever ended with a definitive statement of what the law “is”. Exam questions and essays almost never asked one to give a rote response or yes/no answer. Even worse, the more I studied some problems, the more muddied the waters became: it seemed that there were often no (or a dozen) correct answers as to what the law was on the point in question. After a long time mastering the simple format of essays and tests in school, this was unsettling. It was hard to find the right mix of knowing what the law was, and thinking about what it should be.

Over time, though, it became clear that this was the whole point. Yes, I had expected that I would spend a lot of time looking at casebooks, but I had been thinking I would be learning by rote what the law, carved in stone, had to say. In actuality our tutors and examiners were looking for something more. It was about picking at the law, scraping at its edges and finding out that quite often the law simply did not give one answer in many situations. The “elephant” of a black-letter piece of law can usually be “drawn” many ways.

Of course there are a certain amount of raw facts to learn, with attendant difficulties (I once stood to give a descriptive report to a seminar about a statute but neglected to learn the small fact that it was never actually enacted). These facts, though, were not learned for their own sake. They were tools given to frame and explore problems, not just information to be parroted back to an examiner.

Realizing this was when I started to enjoy studying the law. In retrospect, had it been anything like what I expected it to be I would be bored to tears: three years of glorified repetition, like learning times tables, would have been hard to stomach. Of course even when I got to grips with the degree it was hardly a walk in the park. In fact, it’s quite a bit harder to really explore a legal problem than to just recite the law relevant to it. Sometimes I completely missed the point of a question, even if I had done all the week’s work; this could be very frustrating.

How I and the others in my classes learned to avoid those pitfalls was to work together. When applying to university, law struck me as a somewhat solitary subject. I pictured the competitive nature of the legal world outside university reflected in its academic practice. This could not have been farther from the truth. Everyone was in the same boat (without a paddle at the start), and we found it easier to work through questions and revise together. I had not imagined that there would be law inside jokes, baffling to those studying other subjects, but before exams they were everywhere. The phrase “reasonable man” formed the punch line of countless innuendos and jests, unspeakably geeky but still irresistible.

Obviously my tutor in my first week knew what she was talking about. Studying law is about finding the million things “elephant” could mean, not just stating what it is. It’s about arguing about what can be an elephant, with teachers and with other students. The biggest surprise? Discovering just how interesting, despite its difficulty, arguing about elephants can be.

Last Modified: 15 November 2010