The seven foundations of legal knowledge

A look at the core subjects that form part of the LLB and GDL

Image via @littletommyx
Image via @littletommyx

What do you do on a law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)? It sounds like an obvious question, but it’s one that most prospective law students would struggle to answer in any detail.

Legal Cheek Careers asked Laura McBrien, the deputy programme leader on the GDL at BPP University Law School, to describe in a few sentences what the seven core legal subjects involve, who they tend to appeal to and what careers follow on from studying them.

Equity & Trusts

Equity means ‘fairness’. Historically, it evolved as a way of ensuring justice is done in individual cases based on common sense, which was sometimes felt to be lacking in decisions made under the rather rigid official common law regime. These two branches of law were merged in the Judicature Acts of 1873–75. Since then, courts have sought to apply both the principle of judicial precedent — a defining feature of the common law — within a relatively flexible framework that takes into account the circumstances of the case.

One of the most important ways in which equity manifests itself these days is through trusts, which are governed by both common law and equitable elements. BPP’s Laura McBrien describes the module as “quite abstract and technical at times, but, like a jigsaw, the legal principles you learn build together bit by bit until it all makes sense”. Students who enjoy equity & trusts may end up practising in areas like pensions, tax and insolvency.

Constitutional and Administrative law

The Brexit legal challenge is a classic example of constitutional law. The claimants are using the courts to judicially review the government’s pledge to invoke Article 50 without parliamentary approval, under powers that the legal system gives to them to challenge the state. Such challenges take place regularly about a whole range of matters.

“This is an area in which law and politics collide,” says McBrien. “In that sense, it’s quite a discursive topic, with more room for discussion and the formulation of different arguments.”

Students who enjoy this area could work for the Government Legal Service or pursue careers in human rights law firms or barristers’ chambers.

Tort

Torts are claims for civil wrongs. The most well-known case is Donoghue v Stevenson, which came about after Mrs Donoghue fell ill after finding a dead snail in the bottle of ginger beer she was drinking in a café in Paisley, Renfrewshire. The court decided the drinks manufacturer owed her a duty of care, even though she had not entered into a contract with them, and the tort of negligence was born.

“Tort tends to appeal to students because the cases we study are so colourful and bizarre,” says McBrien. “From negligence to nuisance to defamation, the subject covers a broad area, so there’s really something to interest everyone.”

There is a wide range of careers in tort law including personal injury, which in itself has many elements including specialist medical negligence work, to the likes of defamation work, for those who may be more interested in work which has a media angle..

Criminal law

Like tort, criminal law is full of interesting cases. Because of our high exposure to stories about crime in the news, most people already feel they know a bit about this area. But, says McBrien, “studying it makes you realise how little you know about the legal principles, and brings a whole new dimension to the big cases that you read about in newspapers.”

With criminal law being a part of the legal system that sees people lose their liberty, this is “perhaps the most important area of law as it is the basis of how we have a civilised society,” adds McBrien.

Criminal barristers and solicitors have had a tough time of it lately with legal aid cuts, but their work will always be crucial.

Land law

Property rights sit at the heart of the legal system. “Land is something that we can all relate to, not least because we all live in a house or flat and through that have some sense of the legal obligations we are under,” explains McBrien.

Not that this is a simple area, with land one of the most technical of all the core legal subjects. Like equity & trusts — with which there is some crossover — there is a jigsaw feel to land law, with students’ understanding of the subject sometimes taking a while to come together.

But, once they have cracked it, an interesting career awaits for those who opt to pursue this professionally. “It’s an exciting area to work in,” continues McBrien, “with land lawyers helping new buildings to be created and old properties to be protected.”

EU law

EU law remains very much part of law school syllabuses and, with Brexit negotiations set to take a number of years, it is likely to do so for some time yet. Indeed, with the UK’s relationship with Europe under the microscope, there has probably never been such an interesting time to be studying EU law.

“Students learn how membership of the EU has impacted our law, how the various EU primary or secondary sources (such as regulations and directives) function, and about the wider responsibilities and commitments that we have to the EU,” says McBrien.

One of the main EU law-based careers is competition law, which is a major practice area for many corporate law firms. EU law also has a strong constitutional law element, and can tie in with careers in government and human rights.

Contract law

Every time you buy something, you enter into a contract. That is the starting point for this module, which proceeds to drill down into the law around making an offer (be that an offer to buy a coffee or a car), accepting the offer and dealing with what happens when things do not go to plan.

“Students tend to enjoy finding out about an area of law that underpins the transactions they are involved in everyday,” says McBrien. “That’s the basis of contract law, which extends to cover the most complex transactions between large organisations. Given BPP’s relationships with many corporate law firms, our contract law course is very much business focused.”

This area is a staple of City law firm practice and commercial in-house legal roles.

The next start date for the GDL at BPP (in London, Leeds and Manchester and for the Distance Learning course) is January 2017. Take a look at the BPP website for more information about the course and how to apply.

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