My Oxford history degree was no soft option, says City trainee-to-be Laurence Mills
‘Three hours a week for a history and politics BA doesn’t sound like a challenge’, tweeted employment lawyer Kevin Poulter the other week, before going on to muse further about the supposed easiness of non-law degrees during two recent #RoundMyKitchenTable podcasts for Legal Cheek.
In one of them, Poulter said all historians do at undergraduate level is ‘learn what you learnt at GCSE’. For me, this is a glib comment that displays a fundamental misunderstanding of, firstly, the rigours of university level historical analysis, and, secondly, the wild fluctuation in syllabus between GCSE and one’s degree.
Another claim made by Poulter was that those who study a non-law subject at university lack legal ambition. But even I, as a lowly history and politics graduate grappling with the demands of basic grammar and colouring-in, can’t fail to notice that Lord Neuberger, Attorney General Dominic Grieve MP, and the late Lord Bingham (to name but a few) all studied something other than law before embarking upon their legal careers.
Any defence of a non-law subject should, however, be prefixed with the following statements. Firstly, studying law as an undergraduate is difficult. A defence of a non-law subject should not be taken as an implicit criticism of the LLB. Secondly, studying law at university does not inevitably lead to a closeted world view. Lastly, the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) does not provide the depth of legal knowledge that a three year law degree does.
I seek only to address the issue of whether or not a non-law degree such as mine is of any use to those wishing to enter the legal profession. It seems that there are three clear merits of undertaking such a degree.
Firstly, the analytical skills and academic rigour of a non law degree are of a comparable and complementary nature to that of an LLB. There is little difference between identifying the obiter and ratio of a judgement and distilling the argument of a particularly verbose historian. As a law student, I now seek to distinguish cases in the same way that, as an undergraduate, I would seek to dismiss evidence in comparative government that was drawn from completely different political systems and circumstances.
Secondly, skills in strategic thinking developed during a non-law degree, alongside subject-specific knowledge, are highly applicable in the practice of law. Perhaps more simply put: it is of benefit to know a little of the sector or market your clients operate in when you provide them with legal advice. Even the most skilled advocate can be made to look a fool by an expert witness. A rudimentary understanding of science is of great use to the environmental lawyer; the reading of a post-war history book of monumental benefit to the public law practitioner; a comprehension of business and economics is of absolute necessity for the commercial trainee solicitor.
Thirdly, and drawing these two points together, is the fact that having a wider appreciation of society is of immeasurable academic advantage when it comes to the study of law. The law does not lend itself to be made or practised in an isolated bubble. There is constant interaction between broader economic, social and political trends and the law, and we should recognise this interaction by affording a non-law academic background the basic level of scholarly respect it deserves.
This is, of course, only the humble submission of a GDL student with a history and politics BA. I’d better get back to my dot-to-dot exercises before moving on to some challenging paint-by-numbers tomorrow. They might even let me use felt-tips soon.
Laurence Mills graduated from Oxford University this summer. He is currently studying the GDL at the College of Law in Moorgate.