In line with my own prescriptions, I think it valuable to reflect on the lessons delivered this past week in the LLB / MLAW integration programme. As I made clear in each of the three sessions, my aim was to prepare you for the study of law by identifying a series of strategies, tips, and approaches you might draw upon (and practice!) during the course of your studies.
Of course, there are plenty others and you should avail yourself of the many resources on offer: our own library boasts a shelf of books on succeeding in law school and websites abound on this same topic (including my own!). Ultimately, what you get out of your time at university is contingent on what you put into it.
Much was said about Pickles, formalism and the sociolegal method, issue spotting, and even the nature of law and of legal argumentation. We covered a lot of ground, and I expect this was overwhelming for many.
Let me whittle the session down into three key ideas:
- Disputes over the law almost always extend beyond the law and trigger reflections / opinions / positions about what is lawful and unlawful but also what should be lawful and unlawful. As such, brace yourself for high levels of disagreement, even antagonism, as parties advocate for laws that support their own interests and ambitions and others counter them, usually to promote their own.
- Unlike opinions, which are a dime a dozen, sound arguments are worth their weight in gold. To build a sound argument, choose your propositions carefully and ensure that each one follows the preceding. The funnel (deductive reasoning) and reverse funnel (inductive reasoning) are useful images to deploy when designing an argument.
- Law is a form of order and a mechanism of control. The distinction is critical as the former implies a type of equality between subjects – all are being ordered – while the latter infers an obvious hierarchy – for someone to be controlled, someone must do the controlling. In addition to asking who the law applies to, it is worthwhile enquiring who the law privileges and who it disadvantages.
Recall that we began our second session with a question: should Stormont, Westminster, or Brussels legalise the commercial trade in organs? To be clear, I asked you not to answer the question but to reflect on how you would answer the question. The exercise is not as straightforward as it seems.
On one hand, there is an obvious moral conundrum: few things are more sacred than human life and the human body. To treat (portions of) it as a simple commodity does not sit quite right with many – possibly most – of us. And yet, we have turned many other essentials of human life over to the market without a second thought. To name just a few, consider that water, food, healthcare, education, shelter, clothing, medicine, and more are made available through market channels, either exclusively or in a hybrid format (alongside public delivery). How do we reconcile the marketisation of some aspects of human life with the resistance toward the marketisation of others?
Again, the purpose of the exercise was not to trouble you about the substantive issue but to highlight the difficulty in deciding how we resolve thorny issues. Morality, or natural law theory, provides one foundation for the decision but only an unsatisfactory one since we know that moralities differ. How about state authority or legal positivism then? Unfortunately positivism also comes up short, telling us much about valid and invalid law but nothing about what is good and bad law.
It is here that I proposed RIREAC as a possible way forward:
RIREAC is an excellent way of unpacking a legal problem. What is the reference to this question? Do we examine it as an economic efficiency matter, an equality topic, or even a collective morality one? Each reference will influence the factors that come to bear on our analysis. From there, we walked through the issues that might arise depending on the reference. I stressed that with every legal problem a reference and an issue is needed to focus your examination and thus to help you identify the relevant rule and explain it accordingly. Only then are you capable of making a determination about the application / interpretation of the rule and relevant facts, allowing you to reach a logical conclusion.
Admittedly, I lament the delivery of the third and fourth sessions. A speaker must be discerning about the material they share with their audience, the very first rule of rhetoric. And, in these two days, I adopted the Gatling gun approach, spraying you with round after round of information, theory, tip, strategy, and call to action.
Do not misunderstand me: there were a few gems in there like linguistic intelligence and the tripartite division between data collection, conceptualisation, and articulation. Personally, I would also throw into the gem pile our discussion about the progression of legal education from a purely vocational exercise to a combination of vocational and academic and the implications for your own learning about the law and your own future prospects. Nevertheless, if you did not walk away feeling dizzy, it was only because you were sensible to shut down from information overload!
So, what to take away from these two concluding sessions?
First, Gardner’s theory about multiple intelligences is useful for structuring your own learning about the law. I break up his representation of linguistic intelligence into five parts: linguistic intelligence involves retention, explanation, persuasion, reflection, and creation. While the activities might seem mutually exclusive, they are complementary, deepening your ability to communicate about and thus to engage with the law.
Second, a jurist seeks to study, research, and comment on the law. Students should guide their learning according to juristic standards rather than those of lawyers (whose role is to apply the law). As such, divide your learning about the law into three different activities: data collection (reading / listening), conceptualisation (mind mapping the topics you have learned about as per the samples provided in this post), and articulation (write, speak, write, speak, write, and speak about the law at every opportunity): only then will you develop mastery over or, as I prefer to say, fluency with the law.
Third, law schools are in a confused state. On one hand, we aspire to educate you about the law; on the other, we strive to fill lecture theatres with fee-paying students so as to drive up university revenue. Both ambitions can co-exist, as they do now, but only uneasily and clashes are more and more frequent. Outside of the United States, a country with a long history of marketised education, you are only the second generation of students in the UK being educated within this system. The implications for your own education are only now coming to light and, so far, they are not positive: inflated expectations, devalued degrees, and back-breaking debt is hardly a heart-warming mix.
What to do about the confused state of law schools and, by extension, of law students? It is hard to say as it feels a little like the blind leading the blind (most law professors also lament the commodification of higher learning and are unsure how to counter the tendency). I proposed that you pursue your education with zeal, commitment, and resilience. Hardly a satisfactory strategy, I admit, but it is all I can muster at this stage. Demand more of yourself and you are sure to obtain more from your education.
Will this ensure that you obtain one of the diminishing number of training contracts available? Hardly: the struggle is real and dirty. But it will place you in a much better position to compete with others who share your aspirations. Additionally, and I think more importantly, grabbing your learning by the horns will ensure that you leave the university with a deeper understanding of the world you inhabit and a deeper awareness of your own talents / abilities.
A training contract may or may not be in your horizons but a meaningful and fulfilling life is within your grasp. All you have to do is grip, focus, and point the bull where you want it to go.
And there you have it! Once again, I hope you found the integration programme useful and that these notes help trigger some additional thoughts about legal education broadly and your legal studies specifically.