Lord Sumption tells aspiring lawyers not to do a law degree

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By Katie King on

Do a history degree instead, says the history graduate


Controversial Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption has publicly backed studying a non-law discipline over law at undergraduate degree level.

In his words:

I think that it is permissible to regret the growing tendency of would-be lawyers to devote themselves to the study of law from the age of eighteen.

Declaring himself a member of the non-law degree camp in the hotly-contested LLB v GDL debate, Sumption explained he thinks a law degree is “not a particularly good training” for a career in law.

In his opinion, there are a number of skills essential to good lawyering and good judging such as acute social observation and handling evidence. He went on:

I am not for a moment suggesting, least of all in present company, that law graduates lack these qualities. But I do not think that they derive them from their legal studies.

Sumption’s advice to budding lawyers is to “personally enrich” and “intellectually satisfy” themselves by taking another degree discipline such as history, which he himself studied. Having a good grasp of “the dynamic of human societies through their history” makes him a better judge.

The speech, made by the commercial law specialist in the Rolls Building, London, featured a number of other useful nuggets of information.

One such insight is that Sumption left his previous job as a historian at Magdalen College, Oxford, because he “wanted to be able to pay [his] grocery bills”.

Later on, he addressed the “tired journalistic cliché” that judges are out of touch with real life. His view on this:

The truth is that everybody is out of touch with real life. This is because real life is too vast and too varied for more than a small part of it to be experienced by any one man or woman.

Though this may be an uncomfortable truth, Sumption thinks studying history can help. He continued:

History enables us to understand many things about humankind, which we cannot hope to experience personally.

The Etonian rounded off his speech with a quick look at diversity in the bar and the judiciary. Having come under fire last year for suggesting having more female judges “could have appalling consequences for justice”, Sumption said:

By the admittedly narrow standards of modern professional life, the bar and the bench are surprisingly varied groups of people… [A]mong the sample of barristers and judges of whom I have some knowledge, I can count a former actor, a concert pianist, a doctor, a chemist, and several accountants, merchant bankers and surveyors, as well as a number of refugees from academic life in disciplines other than law.

This diversity of interests and former careers is, in his opinion, a good thing. The former Brick Court Chambers barrister continued:

Every well-rounded professional should have room for at least one consuming interest other than the one that earns them their living. It might be DIY. It might be bell ringing. It might be Morris dancing. History is my equivalent.

Read the speech in full here: