‘I had no idea how important law was while I was studying it in individual slabs’

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By Gary Slapper on

If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been keener to study law. At school I’d wanted to study history at university and only ended up reading law after an unforeseen episode, writes Gary Slapper

When I was in the sixth form, I went to have the designated ‘career interview’ with Mr Sharman. I can remember it clearly as it was an odd event at which one’s path from seventeen to senility was about to be set.

The office was filled with smoke as Mr Sharman constantly smoked a pipe. I could barely see him. As I entered, he puffed another cloud, ruffled some papers and said “Right Slapper, you’re head of the school Debating Society?” I agreed I was. “Well, that’s marvellous. Good society. So then, we’ll put you down for law?” I told him I wanted to read history. “Nonsense. Nonsense Slapper. Never mind history. Are there any lawyers in your family?” I told him my mother’s brother was a lawyer. “Well then!” he exclaimed “there you are, you’re all set! Where did he study?” I told him it was UCL. “Perfect!” he declared, and oddly for someone so used to being contrapuntal in debates, I followed the path signposted by Mr Sharman.

To begin with, I studied law in a simply dutiful way and with limited enthusiasm other than in some subjects such as legal history, Roman law, and jurisprudence. But, the more I studied, the more fascinated I became by law in a very slow, incremental way. After graduating and doing some part-time tutoring, I went on to study for an LLM and then I read and researched for a doctorate. It was a very slow climb. If I’d have had a chance to see a snap of the view of the subject from high up when I was low down, I’d have clambered up more briskly.

I was lucky to be taught by some formidable and inspiring teachers but, even so, I had no idea, really, how important and scintillatingly interesting law is while I was studying it in individual slabs.  A lot of what I learned was duller than it would have been if I’d have had a greater grasp of law as a ubiquitous, organic body.

If I could speak now to myself as a 17-year old, or to all people considering the study of law, I’d say this:

“Law is a subject of a hundred colours and of immeasurable importance. Every particle of everyone’s life is governed by laws. So, who makes the law, what it says, how it is interpreted, and applied are questions with colossally important answers.

When you breathe, you breathe air governed by law. When you eat, you eat food governed by law. When you drink, go to school or university, become an employee or an employer, go on the internet, play sport, drive, have sex, buy a book, or become Prime Minister, you’re in circumstances controlled by laws. The law controls every piece of the jigsaw of personal, social, and political life. It controls life from conception to the coffin. It controls disputes from quarrelling neighbours to warring nations.

When you see that big picture, and how law is so reverberatingly important, it makes the study of its different topics decidedly stimulating. Studying law repays the scholar with an exceptionally wide general knowledge, advanced skills in argument and the use of evidence, clarity of reasoning, acute powers of analysis, and knowledge of the rulebook for every game. What’s not to like?”

Professor Gary Slapper is Global Professor at New York University, Director of NYU London. He is on Twitter at @garyslapper.