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To become a lawyer don’t study law, says Supreme Court’s Lord Sumption — do history, classics, economics or languages instead

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Top judge backs law conversion route

Lord Sumption is known for his snazzy ties, fine head of hair and huge brain

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

In an interview in this month’s Counsel Magazine, the Supreme Court justice had bold words of advice to share with budding lawyers. “Don’t read law if you are going to practise it and can afford the slightly longer route to qualification. Get a broad culture if you can,” he said.

So what does Sumption, who obtained a first-class degree in history from Oxford, recommend instead? In his view, the best degree for a future career in law is … wait for it … history. He went on:

“Most cases have a historical background that’s sometimes helpful to explore and always interesting. History teaches you to analyse fact: most arguments about law boil down to factual analysis.”

The 2019 Chambers Most List

But it’s not just history degrees that the former commercial barrister rates. Sumption also commends other non-law subjects: “Classics, for example. Or economics. Languages are another extremely valuable training. A command of words helps. It is partly a literary skill. You have to hold the court’s attention,” he says.

Converting to law — via the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) — can be a costly venture, and with undergraduate tuition fees now at £9,000 a year it may seem as if this route into law is reserved for those with money. But for students persuaded by the top judge’s pearls of wisdom, there are funding options available. One such route would be to secure a training contract with a corporate law firm who cover the cost of GDL course fees and also often set you up with a maintenance grant. There are also Inns of Court GDL scholarships available for students looking to pursue this route and become barristers.

Sumption is widely known for his wacky hairdo, snazzy selection of ties and ‘Brain of Britain’ nickname (he’s about to release the fifth volume to a five-part history of the Hundred Years War, which he penned alongside his judiciary duties). Prior to becoming a barrister, the old Etonian was an academic fellow at Oxford. He later switched to law and went on to practise at magic circle set Brick Court Chambers.

Sumption will retire from the Supreme Court at the end of the year.

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71 Comments

Rusty Fiat Justitia

It is rare for me to agree with an extra judicial statement by the learned Lord, but I totes agree with this one.

Anonymous

Me too. And I rarely agree with the old Tory on anything.

A law degree provides a very narrow education with limited hinterland. It is also one of the more time-consuming degrees, leaving less time to pursue other reading or the like while at university.

I took modules from outwith the law school when I discovered I could, just to get a more rounded education, but if I could have my time again I’d do a non-law degree followed by the GDL.

A trust fund with a trust fund

“I took modules -outwith- the law school …”
Where they in whatever obscure language this gibberish is written in?

Anonymous

Maybe the fact I did, and you didn’t, is the reason you don’t seem to understand. Narrow education.

Anonymous

I guess my education was “outwith” your education

Anonymous

…or even “ WERE they….”

Jon

@a trust fund within a trust fund – If you study something other than law you’ll at some point encounter the credo, indeed method, of “intellectual charitability” or “intellectual generosity” part of which is not being a bilious psychopath.

Jon

@a trust fund – P.S. I’ve encountered “outwith” in my LLB cases maybe 5 times and elsewhere never, so you must have stuck with the headnotes. Figures. Lucky your clients eh.

Gavin

“outwith” is a Scottish word which means “outside”. Even if you haven’t hear the word before, I’d expect a reasonable person to understand its meaning from the context in which it has been used above.

Anonymous

Law is f***ing boring.

Can’t argue with advice to knock out a mid 2.1 in a more interesting, less time demanding subject like History, still be treated the same by grad recruitment and get the bonus of an added year as a student doing the GDL.

Obviously, even better advice is not to devote your life to pushing paper around for clients who think you’re, at best, a miserable but necessary expense.

Anonymous

Only disadvantage is being a year behind in overall career, but it’s not as if lawyers have an age-related expiry date

Anonymous

How much does a GDL cost these days?!

Anonymous

To the student?: £0
To the firm?: £9k

Anonymous

GDL at the best schools (in central London) is around £20k actually.

Anonymous

Is this true? I did GDL in London a few years ago and it was £9k.

Anonymous

It’s not though. Either Ulaw and BPP are the chosen providers for pretty much every City firm and their fees are around 12k. Not that you have to pay this if you have a TC, anyway.

Anonymous

‘Best schools’

ULaw and BPP are the only choices you Muppet, and both of those are garbage.

Anonymous

Sorry Gonzo, but there are far more providers than that. Poor research on your part there, a slap or two from Miss Piggy is in order.

Anonymous

“a year behind” – LOL, you obviously didn’t graduate into the 2008 banking crash.

Anonymous

Worth noting too that in a lot of economics courses 30% of the students will get a 1st whereas on the law course at the same university maybe 5-10% will get a 1st and graduate recruitment don’t usually take this into account.

Anonymous

with the way that grad teams drool over non-law applicants now – he’s probably right. Why not study something easier?

Anonymous

And a little less dull

Anonymous

What can be easier than law? The belief that law is a difficult subject is a myth put about by law students.

Yawn

Old news

Anonymous

Yeah sure let’s make it even harder for those from poor income backgrounds eh.

Anonymous

Um, good firms pay for the gdl

Anonymous

Chambers do not.

Anonymous

Cool, so that’ll make life hard for all those Oxbridge 1sts from poor backgrounds. There sure is a lot of them around!

Hogwash

What use is studying history if one appears to have learned so little from it?

Sumption wrote for the eugenicist Edgbaston speech: “The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened. A recent article in Poverty, published by the Child Poverty Action Group, showed that a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be.

“Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. They are unlikely to be able to give children the stable emotional background, the consistent combination of love and firmness which are more important than riches. They are producing problem children, the future unmarried mothers, delinquents, denizens of our borstals, sub-normal educational establishments, prisons, hostels for drifters.

“Yet these mothers, the under-twenties in many cases, single parents, from classes 4 and 5, are now producing a third of all births. A high proportion of these births are a tragedy for the mother, the child and for us.

“Yet what shall we do? If we do nothing, the nation moves towards degeneration, however much resources we pour into preventative work and the over-burdened educational system.”

(See https://web.archive.org/web/20170508133040/https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/sir-keith-joseph-and-the-market-economy for his fellow historian Professor Bogdanor’s lecture about it)

He also published a book that year with the minister who gave that speech arguing against the pursuit of equality. Small wonder then that he said having more women on the Supreme Court could have “appalling consequences” for justice (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/rush-for-gender-equality-with-top-judges-could-have-appalling-consequences-for-justice-a2952331.html) and characterised his £1.6m earnings as a barrister as “puny” to the media (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2003/sep/17/uk.davidkelly).

He may be right. It would be good to study history to get a broad culture. But clearly the latter doesn’t always follow from the former.

Trumpenkrieg

Your point being?

Anonymous

That you need to read more, moron.

Sense, if not sensibility

You must not be a lawyer. He didn’t say ‘more women on the SC could have appalling consequences’.

He said rushing the decision through, say, quotas, would be.

As for puny, he’s comparing himself to people who work no harder than them, but due to economic reasons, they have greater leverage (you can greater leverage selling products, there’s no limit, whereas if you sell your time like lawyers, well max 24hrs)

Therefore your argument largely befits your chosen (or given) name.

Anon

Thank you for your awesome contribution. Sumption’s remarks are terrifying.

Anonymous

I wouldn’t be surprised if lord sumption lives pay check to pay check

Anonymous

Yes, the bills from his hair salon and his tasteless tailor eat up all his ca$h.

Anonymous

Serious Q, were you having an epileptic fit when you typed this drivel?

Anonymous

Why study history? Just live in the present lol

Sense, if not sensibility

Why have Law? #Freedom4Eva yo.

Anonymous

To know where you are going, you have to appreciate where you have been

Anonymous

Just so you know where I am going tonight… I have been in your mum.

Anonymous

But foolish considering I’m a 50 year old woman – do grow up

Anonymous

Just going to put this here, no need to think too much about what I am doing…

Jeremy Usborne: I can’t believe we’re going back to Dartie! There’s no quim likes to party…

Mark Corrigan: Like the quim down in the Dartie. Yeah, those were the days. Did you ever appeal about your degree mark?

Jeremy Usborne: Who cares about that shit? I didn’t go to university to get a degree.

Mark Corrigan: No, of course. Anyway, no use regretting the past, I wish I’d done Ancient History, but…

Jeremy Usborne: I thought you did do Ancient History.

Mark Corrigan: I did Business Studies, Jeremy, for three years. And I talked to you about it daily.

Jeremy Usborne: Right.

[voiceover]

Jeremy Usborne: I could tell him that’s all ancient history now. He probably wouldn’t like that joke.

[to Mark]

Jeremy Usborne: Oh well, that’s all ancient history now.

Sally from Accounts

I love his ties. I just want to pull on one.

Anonymous

We NEED socialism to end austerity and give pay rises to NHS nurses and teachers!

Tax wealthy lawyers! Raise income tax!

VOTE CORBYN, BEFORE MORE DIE!!!!

FOR THE MANY, NOT THE FEW

Anonymous

I totally agree. People here are a bunch of neo-fascist right wing c*nts though so don’t expect a positive response.

Anonymous

Study law and read history books in your spare time. Study history and then do law afterwards. Do whatever suits.

If it were as simple as saying study X and you will end a successful lawyer, wouldn’t we all be doing it?

Anonymous

No. Most people would avoid it.

Critical Thinker

If Sumption had studied law, he might have reached the correct decision in Miller.

Interestingly, the 3 dissenting judges (i.e. those with a proper understanding of the Royal Prerogative) all studied law at university.

The Court of Pie Powders

If Sumption had studied law he might make logical decisions in general and not think he’s still an advocate simply trying to get his way in whatever legally convincing sounding manner he can.

Alex aldridge

If I’d studied something serious I might be a functioning adult.
But nope, I ‘did’ history at Durham ‘university’ so here I am living in my mumsy’s basement and editing a legalblogtweetsiteshitthing still at almost 50!!!!

Anonymous

Jeremy Corbyn will bring the rule of law under democratic control!

Property rights will be curtailed, taxed and regulated! No more will our rulers use the law as a stick to beat up the poor and oppressed!

We need socialism, to pay for our underfunded NHS, teachers and other public sector heroes! We will raise taxes on high earning city parasites!

Moneylaw? Shmoneylaw. These Jewish bankers and lawyers won’t know what’s hit them.

VOTE CORBYN, FOR THE MANY, NOT THE FEW!!!!!!!!!

His Dad

Without me Sumption would be nothing.

Anonymous

What’s up you fresh little chickens – chop chop!

Anonymous

Of course it’s important to understand the historical background of certain cases, but more often than not it is even more important to understand … wait for it … the law!

Also part of the reason so many cases turn on their facts is because so many barristers and judges have such absolutely no idea or understanding of the finer points of the law – and many Sumption’s judgments suggest he is one of them!

Anonymous

And you learn far more law from practising it than you ever do from reading law reports as a 20 year old in a dusty university library.

Anonymous

Doesn’t matter if he’s a lord or not, he can’t speak for the path he didn’t take. Having been a non-law pleb himself, of course he would say that but how much more ‘critical thinking’ or ‘analytical skills’ do you learn from a history degree that you wouldn’t learn from a law degree? It’s already ridiculous that people are allowed to ‘convert’ so easily in this country after getting an easier degree from a non-law course.

Master of the Bacon Rolls

Perhaps if more of our lawyers studied history they could all provide such stand-offish judgments like the learned Lord did in Nicklinson.

Anonymous

I would assume that this is written by a russian robot. If not then the author should reflect on the damage he or she is doing to the Labour party (and socialism in general) by linking those causes to his or her mindless racist remarks.

Now I will press the report button

Anonymous

The above referenced a comment that has magically disappeared…..

Anonymous

A semi-agree. Non-law is best; but social sciences > history, if you really want to understand people and society (and, if you’re going to be a good lawyer, you should).

Economics and harder-edged sociology/psychology/polsci.

Anonymous

For me, Sumption needs snookers.

If I am not mistaken he acted as the second selected QC by poor old Boris Berezovsky. (BB)

BB , if you recall, wished for a High Court judgment which would pronounce that Vladimir Putin and Roman Abramovich had colluded to deprive BB of his rightful corporate property and political power and, presumably, that there should be a lien put in place on Roman’s British assets to right the wrongs.

A lady QC was dropped by BB early doors and , without any foundation whatsoever, I have a little image that she said “BB san, tha’s not a hope in hell of a judgment like that. It won’t end well for you lad, neither.” I would have concurred with such an obvious view.

Now along comes Jonty and runs the case, *notwithstanding all the history that he read and taught at Oxford*.

Guess what? BB lost badly. Ruinous costs order to the degree that he has to move into his ex wife’s spare room.

He is found hung by his scarf shortly after, but bless the coroner, the coroner was unable to pronounce suicide because of evidence from a German professor or some sort that BB was assassinated. Open verdict.

Sumption 18 behind (but to play) with only the pink and black remaining, as I see it.

BPTC student

You are mistaken. Sumpy was for Abramovich, and he absolutely wiped the floor with Berezovsky in cross.

Anonymous

Thank you.

Laurence Rabinowitz QC was for BB.

The spectator reported that JS charged Abramovich 7 million for the case.

Definitely not Brick Court barrister

I’m not sure Brick Court would enjoy being lumped in with the ‘magic circle’ lot, far above all that solicitors nonsense.

Bitter and unemployed law grad

As a law graduate (one of those 5-10% with a First – from a good university) I am quite fed-up with those already in the profession publically bashing law degrees.

I think it sends the wrong message to those interested in a career in law and deciding what to do at university. If you are intending to become a lawyer you ought to find studying the law somewhat interesting and be prepared to put in a few more hours than those on other courses. This drive ought to be respected by law firms/chambers rather than down played.

That is not to say that those who do other courses should not have the option of becoming a lawyer (certainly some variation is needed to ensure a firm isn’t made up of essentially the same person), but that this should not be the route heavily encouraged.

Studying law at undergrad gives students a much broader legal experience and a chance to go beyond the rather dry core subjects and more of a chance to explore areas they might like to practice.

Anonymous

Yeah. I find it weird how so many people assume law is too dull to study for three years at uni, but not too dull to practise for decades. If you don’t enjoy it at all, why not do something else?

Anonymous

Careers in theology: lol
Careers in history: lol
Careers in literature: lol
Careers in foreign languages: lol
Careers in politics: lol unless you’re charismatic af

Careers in law: 2i from Bristol ‘university’? Would you like £40k to start?

Doctor Doom

Butthurt LLB grads incoming.

Anonymous

England and Wales has to be one of the only jurisdictions where one can become a specialist lawyer with such minimal study and application. Someone can become a family barrister without having ever studied any family law after one year of academic study, and one (two if you count the BPTC) year of on the job training.

Also, the comment is unrealistic. In many areas I don’t agree that there is basically no difference between what the two routes have to offer. In areas like Commercial Chancery work there is no way that a full law degree and (say) the BCL won’t put you at an advantage in practice.

Given that the BPTC seems to obsess over Crime and Personal Injury, I’m sure the GDL is perfectly sufficient. It is hard to see any other areas where having the GDL won’t put you at some sort of disadvantage. Some excellent individuals with natural aptitude perform just as well, but there is an awful lack of basic subject knowledge at the junior end among many GDL graduates. To take the public law family example, it must be a major learning curve having never seriously engaged with the subject matter for more than a 2 day mini pupillage or 1 week internship.

Anonymous

You learn to read and write (at the highest, analytical level) at university.
You get practical experience… on the job!
Sumption has destroyed opponents in court throughout his career, proving that it is intellectual rigour, not what degree you did, applied to experience that produces an effective advocate.

Also,
Sumption: £1.6m / year is ‘puny’
You: I love it when my mumsy gives me additional £5 to buy a trio of Sols down the local spoons to supplement my Jobseeker’s Allowance!!

Anonymous

No one “destroys” anyone in court. Who do you think you are, a member of the SAS? If you want an exciting life, what are you doing drafting that really interesting clause in that really exciting contract?

But it is the barrister who has any fun that there is to have in legal practise. The job of the corporate solicitor is about as interesting as an auditor (and I a may be doing a disservice to auditors here). But we all know how exciting it must be proofreading that “bullet proof” clause in the takeover “battle” that you are doing the all-nighter on. And we all know how important your work is and how intelligent you must be printing off a precedent agreement and inserting the names and details of the parties. And then proofreading it all again.

You have, so many believe, one life. Studying a subject other than law may have made that one life a lot more interesting.

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