Why do a law degree?

My sister-in-law is currently deciding what she wants to do when she leaves school. She will be sitting the Leaving Certificate this year. She has decided she wants to pursue a career in law. The advice to her from friends of mine who are lawyers was “don’t study law in university if you want to be a solicitor or barrister – do something else that interests you and will give you extra skills”.

As there are no longer any exemptions for law degree graduates on the professional qualifications for solicitor or barrister there is no advantage there.

However, one might suspect that if you have studied Tort, Criminal law, Legal Systems and a raft of other subjects that are part of the core exams for professional qualification you would have some sort of advantage or ‘head start’ (I suspect this is the thinking behind my sister-in-law’s persistence at wanting to do a law degree first). This would seem to make sense and would be, as JK Galbraith put it, “Conventional Wisdom”.

But interestingly, some research has been done on just this question (admittedly in the US) and the results were interesting enough for the Freaknomics guys to write about it on their blog on the New York Times.

To quote from the article:

no relationship existed between law school courseloads and the passage rate of students ranked in the first, second or fourth quarters of their law school class, while only a weak relationship existed for students who ranked in the third quarter.

In other words, smart people with work ethics (the top 2 quarters of the class) passed the Bar exams regardless of the courses they studied in law school. The bottom tier failed regardless of what courses they took. The middle ground people… well for them it might have helped a little bit – but only a bit.

My legal friends view was that given that you have to study for the professional exams anyway, it would be better to become a more rounded person with perspectives from other disciplines before embarking on the legal route. Many of the solicitors I know from college either didn’t study law or, for those that did, went into another career for a few years before returning to the law with a wider skillset.

One of the most thoughtful and insightful legal minds I know doesn’t have a law degree from University. He studied classics and was a civil servant for a while. He took the professional qualification route to solicitor (as everyone has to). As a result he is an interesting fellow to talk to about things ranging from politics and social ethics to the campaigns of Philip of Macedon and the merits of the Kaiser Chiefs. He has been known to give pretty good legal advice too.

That’s not to say that people with law degrees are dull and boring. Many of them are not. I must categorically state this… law degree holders are not boring (on average). (Disclosure… in my misspent youth I spent 4 years studying in UCD’s Law faculty to get my BBLS)

So, the anecdotes from my lawyer friends are that if you want to be a lawyer you should spend three to four years studying something else that interests you before you embark on your professional qualification. That learning will round you out as a person, give you different perspectives on the law, it might give you contacts you can call on in the future (expert witnesses, plumbers, whatever) and at the very least it gives you time to be certain you want to be a lawyer.

The scientific evidence is that what you study in law school doesn’t affect your ability to pass professional qualifications (and I know that the study relates to the US and Bar exams and similar studies might have different results here… but I doubt it). Add to that the fact that you can enter the legal profession here through a variety of routes and don’t need to have completed a law degree first and I am left with the question…

Why study law if you want to be a lawyer?

I’m not sure if anyone has done a similar study in Ireland but it would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between pass grades in Solicitor FE1s or Kings Inns exams for people actually having completed a law degree versus those without.

10 thoughts on “Why do a law degree?”

  1. What interested me (or dismayed me.. I’m not quite sure which) was the fact that on the freakonomics post quite a lot of legals seem to have missed the point and not read the key sentences fully. Quite a lot of the commenters were saying things like “look, they say that if they do well in law school they do well on the Bar exam”.

    Perhaps those commenters might have been better served getting an English degree.

    Congratulations on your FE1 results FPL and I’m sure the physics will come in useful sometime 🙂 I suspect (and correct me if I am wrong) but having been trained to think in a structured way and work from abstract concepts (laws of motion for example) to real world issues (e.g. how to win at pool) was a very transferrable skill that served you well in the FE1s?

  2. The first question to consider is whether or not the points are within reach. Even if they are, it may not be worth the mental health dangers of trying to achieve them.

    If I were your sister-in-law, I would ask

    what sort of legal career do I want?

    a) in a university as an academic lawyer?

    b) in a corporate solicitors’ office (eg McCann Fitz) dealing with some obscure special area of taxation for 80 hours a week,

    c) in a high street solicitors’ office dealing with conveyancing, contracts, wills, drug dealers, shoplifters and real live actual people

    d) or in courtroom advocacy and opinion writing (ie as a barrister – criminal or civil)

    If her interest is primarily academic/philosophical, she should do the degree. Certainly, I would go onto one of the university law faculty web pages and look through the curriculum. It would be useful to compare such a curriculum with the list of exams for the FE1s and a list of exams for the Kings Inns entrance. Many undergraduates come to the exams without having studied at least one of the subject areas.

    If she wants to work for McCann Fitz, she should ring their HR department and as how many of their solicitors have law degrees and how many have non-law degrees. I would be willing to bet, the issue isn’t what degree you get, but rather what grade the degree was. You’re more likely to do well academically if you’re genuinely interested in the course material not just paying some kind of dues in order to get into a big money job within seven years of the Leaving Certificate.

    I’m at the Inns. To be allowed to sit the entrance exam for the Barrister-at-Law degree you have to have an undergraduate law degree from an approved institution, OR the Kings Inns diploma in legal studies, which is two years at night.

    The degree year is split nearly 50-50 between diploma and university entrants.

    Most barristers I’m acquainted with or know of did not come through the universities.

    An undergraduate law degree is basically a species of arts degree, except with all the interesting bits taken out ;). If your sister-in-law is interested in academic law and social policy and all that, she should do the degree.

    But in terms of preparing for the practicalities of practice and the operation of the law in the courts, an arts degree and the diploma (which is taught by practicing barristers and is most definitely practice oriented) is a more useful path I think for the average joe or josephine.

    The best lawyers of all might well be the high flying lovers of academic law at undergrad. But if you’re not Paul Anthony McDermott basically, that route might well prove to be a waste of your time and youth.

  3. Copernicus, excellent post and hopefully the sister-in-law will have taken my hint and read the post and the comments that are coming in.

    You are, of course, completely right. If someone is interested in the social policy and philosophical aspects of law then having a few years to swan around the student bar discussing Posner’s economic analysis of Rylands v Fletcher is a good investment (it has stood to me, even though I never quite got around to doing the professional qualification courses).

    And Paul Anthony McDermott made my studies in UCD very interesting and stimulating. – he was my Legal Systems tutor in first year and in fourth year I sat in on his Constitutional Law lectures even though I wasn’t doing the exam. (I may have neglected to sit in on the lectures I was doing exams in as a consequence).

  4. Apologies Daragh: this has developed into far too long a comment!

    Copernicus speaks a lot of sense. He’s more or less right. If she’s interested in the law she should study law and if not she should do something that she finds rewarding (and she should wonder whether she’ll be happy as a lawyer).

    That said, I don’t think the paper you cite actually underpins your point at all (the full paper is here (pdf) by the way). First, it’s hardly definitive scientific evidence. It’s a study of people emerging from one law school in Missouri and doing the Missouri State exams. There’d be lots more work to do to decide that the conclusions reflect a rule that applies as much in Dublin etc as it does in St Louis.

    Second, the paper’s argument, as you point out, is that there isn’t a significant relationship between doing qualifying courses and doing the bar exam. It’s not a comparison of bar exam performance between people who did a law degree and people who didn’t do a law degree. It’s about performance between people who took certain courses in a law degree and people who took other courses in a law degree.

    One conclusion is that people who do very well in their law degrees do well in the exam and people who do less well in their law degrees do, um, less well. But it might well be that people who lack legal exam skills did worse than people who got did law degrees. Moreover, it might be that people who went to law schools and build up a load of networks get better jobs, earn more, have fewer split ends etc. Or it might not.

    Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised (at the very least because older students are often better students) if people who didn’t come straight from law school might do even a little better than their lawyer peers. But, because it doesn’t say that what you study doesn’t matter, this paper doesn’t give us any information on this. So it doesn’t really help your point.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with you though. That said, it’s worth keeping in mind that, to get into King’s Inns, you have to do two years of (what I hear is very intensive) part-time studying. It doesn’t refute your point but the sister-in-law ought to be aware that she’ll take two busy and expensive years longer than her law student peers to become a barrister (if the bar becomes her favoured option).

    Full disclosure: I work in a law school and crave everyone’s cash. And I am so incredibly boring that I’ve spent the last half-hour trying to find any studies anywhere on your final question. Nothing comes up but it would be interesting to find out wouldn’t it?!

  5. Huzzah, d’Interweb discussion thingy works!

    Ciaran – I take your points on board. I drew a broad conclusion based on a narrow set of evidence and my own personal preconceptions. As you correctly point out the study looked at just one law school in Missouri. Paint my face and call me John Waters.

    In relation to your second point, my argument is an extension of the findings and I might be stretching a bit.. if the choice of subject in law school doesn’t matter in the Bar exams, the corollary could be that law school itself doesn’t matter. As you say, there are a number of other variables (law exam skills etc.) that might influence the trend. But I’ll accept that, on the evidence in the paper, I’m probably reaching a bit here (but hasn’t it brought about some discussion and two points of view that will either help or confuse the sister-in-law even further?)

    However I’d still be of the view that people who have intelligence and work hard will do well – for a start they might seek out past papers etc. to get a feel for the nature of the exams. Your comment about older students perhaps doing better is interesting.

    As for the need to take the extra 2 years to get to Barrister you are indeed correct, but one of the points I was making was sometimes that ‘scenic route’ and extra effort makes you a more rounded person who is perhaps a better advocate – again it is related to the ‘life experience’ issue for older students.

    The networking argument you put forward I would not put too much weight behind personally. There are many ways to build up contacts. I spent 4 years in UCD Law Faculty and most of my friends and contacts from then were actually psychology students, philosophy students, a few engineers and a Greek & Roman civilisation student. Some of them are now relatively successful solicitors or barristers. Each of them has a professional network they’ve built up that overlaps into the ‘personal’ network. There are more ways to develop the necessary network (and having networks that work around the ‘traditional’ structures is sometimes an advantage).

    Ultimately I think that it comes down to a personal question for people entering the legal profession. Do you want to ‘fast track’ and perhaps miss out on some ‘life experience’ and broader learning which might make you a better advocate in the future (or might make you rethink your plans about entering the legal profession and chose a different path)? Or do you want to learn some broader skills/concepts, perhaps pick up some additional life experience, but accept that you may need to trade off doing some additional work down the line to get to your goals.

    And Finally— If you work in a Law School you may have access to the resources necessary to conduct this type of study for Ireland. Perhaps taking a broader scope than the Missouri study and looking a) at students from a law school background and seeing if results in their degree are a predictor of grades in professional exams and b) comparing against a random sample of ‘non-law schoolies’ to see if the correlation relates to factors other than law school experience. There’s a thesis in that for someone.

  6. Hi Daragh: I’m a little embarrassed at the long-winded post last time. Never blog when you’re tired. Anyway, I was proposing some counter arguments, but my intuition is largely the same as yours: the scenic route may have advantages that compensate or maybe even more for skills etc that one would pick up as a law student.

    On a study: working in a law school won’t do the trick. You’d have to work in Blackhall Place or King’s Inns and would have to get clearance to use their data. It would be interesting but my guess is that this is data these bodies would be very enthusiastic about holding on to.

  7. Ciarán – don’t apologise for long comments. It was clear to me from your counter arguments that while we had slightly differing perspectives and starting points the destination we were heading for was broadly similar.

    As for the study, it’s a pity you don’t have access to the data. However, it would be an interesting study if somebody could get access to the information. It might even be useful for the two august bodies as marketing material for the quality of their lecturers 😉

  8. That is a really good post Darragh. I have a law degree but also have a business & finance degree, it was the law degree that secured the most exemptions in the Chartered Accountants professional exams, law seems to open up many other doors adding to that, a law degree provides a good foundation for a career in law plus all the top law firms will expect you to have a law degree. So yes, I would recommend doing a law degree. In saying that, eventually I would like to be a barrister but am really glad I did something else first it gives you insight or perhaps appreciation for other industry’s.

  9. Mr. Justice Adrian Hardiman does not hold a Law degree from a University. He studied History at UCD and then did the Kings Inn’s dip. in Legal Studies and was subsequently called to the bar…. just an interesting fact.

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