I’ve always had a latent interest in the law. Ever since my political awakening I’ve been fascinated by the invisible tendrils of a strange and powerful system that reaches into every aspect of life. It seems bizarre that only in recent years have its layers of rules, procedures and decisions been open to easy inspection. As a layperson I was attracted by the apparent cold logic of it all: every situation gets reduced to a result that is absolutely and provably correct and consistent (of course this is wrong, but more of that later).
I’ve studied with the wonderful Open University before, gaining qualifications in music that eventually led me to start teaching piano. For those of a certain age, the OU is a fuzzy black-and-white film of a bearded man enthusing about maths at 4am on BBC2, and it’s easy to scoff if you haven’t actually studied with them. In fact I’ve been consistently impressed by the quality both of the printed material and of the teaching itself: you’re left in no doubt that you are receiving a high-quality university-level education. So in late 2010, more-or-less on the spur of the moment, I decided to take the plunge, and booked myself onto the first mandatory course of the OU’s law degree. I’d managed to fit my music studies around my work before, so I was confident that a change of subject wouldn’t present a problem (wrong again!). As I’m lucky enough to have a bachelor’s degree already, I can use the OU’s credit transfer scheme to complete the LLB with four years of part-time study (for those interested, the courses are W200, W201, W300 and W301).
I’m just about to start my last year of study towards the LLB, so it’s a good time to reflect on how things are going. I will get to the question in the title eventually, so bear with me!
Preconceptions schmeconschmeptionsSo it was in at the deep end, and time for my perceptions of the law to be shattered. First was the one I’ve already mentioned: whatever you do, your legal position is definite and predictable. I’d always imagined that my legal state could be determined by reference to statute (i.e. written rules; what people think of as ‘laws’): if I go out and murder someone, then presumably there’s a Murder is Bad Act that would send me straight to the Scrubs. I had a vague impression of people ‘setting a precedent’, but had no idea what this really meant or when it happens.
The most confusing thing I’ve dealt with in the last three years is the concept of the ‘common law’. Readers in other jurisdictions will think this sounds bonkers, which is fair enough because it does sound bonkers. Common law is that body of rules which is not explicitly collected and written down anywhere, and yet remains in force as much as any statute. Sometimes they can be found in decided cases which form a binding precedent over lower courts; sometimes these cases are very old but still binding; and for other rules, there is no written source at all. There is no Murder is Bad Act, and in fact no written law or judgment defining murder as bad. Murder is bad because, well, it is bad. If I ended up in the dock for murder, the charge read out in court would end ‘…contrary to common law’.
Then there’s the whole business of judge-made law. Put shortly (and slightly inaccurately), a decision about a point of law in a higher court (e.g. the Supreme Court) will bind lower courts (e.g. County Courts) until that decision is subsequently overturned (or obviated by legislation). Although there is a general principle that the effect of law on a person should be predictable (you do this, it does that), if your circumstances happen to fall between two stools—something not thought of when legislation was drafted, or something that’s just never happened before—you might find yourself making legal history in the high courts, in which case no-one can predict with certainly what the result will be. Although courts can’t invalidate legislation (as they can in the US), they can change common law rules. Sometimes they do this because the old rule was bloody awful, which can only be a good thing. Realising what it is that judges actually do was one of the biggest mind-set changes I experienced in my studies.
Having learned all this, the law felt increasingly like an amorphous blob of goo in my unskilled hands.
How hard can it be?The second question I get asked when I tell people what I’m studying (after ‘good lord, why?!!‘) is ‘ooh, isn’t that really hard?’ As one might expect, law is bloody difficult, but not in the way you might expect. The actual material is relatively straightforward to understand: legislation is pretty easy to interpret when you get the hang of it, judgments can be moderately entertaining to read, and a great deal of undergraduate law can be learned in an ‘if-this-then-that’ style.
The difficulty is in the sheer weight of material. I can’t say this enough times: these courses are huge. In the first year I read more stuff—and made more notes—than in three years of music courses. To give some perspective, the level 3 music course I took came with five books of around 230 pages each. This year’s level 3 course has four A4-format books with a similar number of pages each, plus three 6-800 page textbooks. The courseware is very dense and none of it can be skimmed. ‘If-this-then-that’ quickly becomes ‘if-this-then-maybe-that-but-only-if-these-four-conditions-are-satisfied-and-only-then-if-the-murderer-was-wearing-purple’.
The main problem I’ve found in terms of difficulty is the mountain of memorisation needed to do well in a law exam. The exams are closed-book, so every Act, section, and case name you might need has to be committed to memory. For some areas of law—most notably criminal law—most of what you need is in Acts of Parliament; if you can’t remember the difference between assault by penetration (s2 Sexual Offences Act 2003) and sexual assault (s3 Sexual Offences Act 2003), at least you can give the Act name and have a decent stab at the year. Similarly, the Fraud Act 2006 does what it says on the tin.
However, other areas (e.g. tort, the area of law used to sue someone who just ran you over) are very, very case-heavy. The problem with case law is that the name of the case tells you precisely nothing about the facts of the case, which in turn tell you nothing about the precedent it set, which can be extremely specific. So, for example, you can’t claim damages for pain and suffering for periods of unconsciousness (Wise v. Kaye  EWCA Civ 2). No-one expects the full citation in an exam, but somehow you just have to know that ‘no damages for suffering while unconscious’ = ‘Wise v. Kaye’. If you’re thinking ‘pff, word association, no problem’, then take a look at my case list for last year’s course. There are 163 cases in that list, and those are just the ones I thought were important while I was revising.
The tl;dr of this: law is hard because it’s so very, very big.
So is it possible to do a law degree in your spare time?Short answer: ask me this time next year 🙂
The previous OU courses I’ve done all recommended committing an average of 16 hours a week to study. For my music courses I found this very generous, and usually ended up doing no more than eight or ten hours in a typical week. That’s just not possible with law. Sixteen hours is the amount of time it takes to read and understand everything and to make decent notes. More is required to internalise it and relate the new material to everything else. Still more is needed to complete the assignments and revise for the hellish exams… and don’t underestimate the difference between levels 2 and 3 with law. The step up is steep to the point of being vertical.
Law will take its toll on you. You’ll turn into a legal bore, reading everything twice before you sign it, asking salespeople awkward questions about fitness for purpose, and watching the Supreme Court’s judgments for fun. Your friends will try to use you as a source of free legal advice the moment you begin. You’ll have an irresistible urge to put your new knowledge into practice and start suing everyone, and despair at others’ fundamental misunderstandings.
Despite all this, it is possible. Fellow students in my tutor groups have come from all kinds of backgrounds and with far busier lives than mine, and they’re slogging through the courses somehow. But if I can only offer one piece of advice: don’t underestimate law. It’s had over 700 years to become the twisty maze we have today. If you’re a bit unsure (maybe more so after reading this!), the OU offers some free extracts from its courseware along with lots of other materials. I highly recommend reading anything by Gary Slapper, a visiting professor at the OU and a highly engaging writer (plus he’s very good value on Twitter)… and speaking of Twitter, John Cooper QC never fails to analyse important legal events with precision. As an unqualified amateur I admire him and those like him beyond words, and if they appeal to you as well, perhaps you should give law some serious consideration. Just make sure that, when you do, it’s sufficient.
Update: it turns out that it is possible, as I just received my LLB (Hons) with an upper second class! I’ll write more about that soon.
 As noted elsewhere I really don’t like linking to Wikipedia articles, but I’m assuming that no-one’s going to use this blog post for scholarly research. Apart from anything else it would be a stupid thing to do because it, along with everything else out there, gets indexed by TurnitinBot. Don’t do it, kids.
 Of course you should always read and understand a contract before signing it, and many things you’re asked to sign are actually contracts. I’m always amazed when I’m told that I’m the first ever to read the terms and conditions.