Back to Law School
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
It’s Spring of the academic year, full of fresh starts and new life. Campuses around the UK are flooded with flyers, freebies and freshers’ flu. Familiar faces, tanned from their summer adventures, catch up over coffee, drinks or dinner whilst newcomers linger in huddles, fervently sociable to anyone and everyone they can find. Whether you’re starting afresh, or returning, it’s back to law school.
If you’re new to university, you’ve probably mastered the classic ‘name – subject – home town’ conversation. This is an impossible game of Guess Who? Where faces and names no longer match the profiles they came with, instead buzzing around independently, latching onto the wrong people, whose names you’ve already asked for several times before, yet still can’t pronounce and/or remember. Other readers may be several years into their studies, well-accustomed, and excited, to get back into the rhythm of university life.
Whatever stage in your studies you’re at, this blog should have something for you. We’ll cover what to expect from a law degree, and how to make the most of you law degree, getting a grade you’re happy with and maximising opportunities to develop skills and experience moving forwards. Since it’s a lot of ground to cover, feel free to skim ahead so the blog meets you where you’re at, and is most useful for you.
Law School: What to expect?
What does a law degree look like? Aside from chinos, shirts and knitted jumpers (I’m joking!)… to a medic, or vet, or science student, or maybe even parents, it probably looks like a walk in the park! You’re unlikely to have lectures first-thing every morning and you’re almost never going to haveto stay in all day, if you choose not to. You’re more likely to get crushed alive in the classic law student mid-lecture stampede to get coffee than you are to have more than 2-3 lectures or seminars a day. But, try as they might to convince you, don’t believe the drawl that there’s a simple link between contact time and ease of degree. A law degree still has high demands, and requires a different set of skills.
A law degree will vary hugely across different universities so if you’re looking into law from an A-level position, I’d encourage you to do some preliminary research on what module choices are accessible to you, contact time, group size, teaching methods, examination methods, pro bono opportunities and the possibility of study abroad. There are, however, some components that almost all law students will experience:
At some point of most days, you can expect a lecture or two. Lecturers vary in style, but the UK system is generally engaging rather than an onslaught of all the information you’ll need for your exam which you can take away to memorise. Usually, lectures are a springboard for a particular topic, they can direct your reading, clarify issues you’ve come across and set the scene for new content.
On my year abroad in France, it wasn’t uncommon for the lecturer to turn up fully kitted out in gowns similar to graduands or barristers, sit down and read from the notes they’d used year on year, whilst we furiously typed away at our keyboards for three hours. Fortunately, this doesn’t really wash with the English system of learning, which tries to generate more critical thinking and independence, but probably less interaction (at least in lectures) than US education.
Smaller, more interactive and inclusive than your lectures, you can expect 10-20 students and a tutor to discuss course content for an hour or two. You’ll be given reading to do in preparation, and usually a list of questions, or scenarios you’ll have to address and bring with you to contribute to conversation.
This is what you spend most of your time doing as a law student. Whether you’re in the library, at home, in bed, or in the law faculty… wherever you find yourself and no matter how many hours you spend rifling through textbooks, articles, cases and legal sites, you’re never going to be able to get through all possible reading material there is on a subject. Most modules, especially those assessed by exams, will give you very prescribed reading lists and ensure you’ve got the core materials to get a good grade. For essay subjects, you really have free reign on what you read, how much you read, and where you get your resources from. You’ll learn how to read more quickly and efficiently, to make notes which are helpful to you, and how to go about preparing in the most effective way.
All this reading is essentially a good excuse to drink much coffee, eat much cake, take a gym break and generally find those study motivations to get you through the many pages of law. Get yourself some cacti and scented candles (sometimes necessary to defrost your hands, especially in student houses up north!) and you'll be away... or just head into the library or law school - there will be study environments to suit everyone and they're far less stingy than students when it comes to the heating bill!
Mastering Law School
It seems almost pretentious to right a ‘top tips’ style guide to your law degree. Rather than take this as a lecture on how you should approach law school, or as a watertight guide on how to get a first (neither of which this blog claims to be), think of this as things I wish people had told me before I started, or nuggets of advice which were given to me along the way which I found particularly useful.
Know what you’re working towards
How are modules assessed?
What grade are you aiming to get?
What does the assessor expect in order to get that grade?
Different kinds of modules are assessed in different ways, and whether the end product of your work is an exam or an essay will hugely impact how you spend your time. Assessment style will vary between institutions and lecturers, but you should be ready to make some simple changes which can prove useful law school hacks. In my own law degree, assessments included:
Multiple choice questions
Written essay questions (i.e. a commentary/assessment on a particular viewpoint, practice, application or aspect of law)
Written problem questions (i.e. a response to a set fact pattern, advising on the likely legal position, possibilities and outcomes)
Seminar contributions (this was a minimal grade but seminar-based presentations, groupwork and submissions can also form part of your final grade)
Take-home exams (i.e. an exam was released in the morning and students were given 5 hours to complete two questions online in an open-book assessment before resubmitting their work - a really innovative exam technique designed to replicate real life a little more realistically than a three-hour hand-numbing memory game of an exam)
Coursework (i.e. independent research which culminates in a written essay, anywhere between 1,000 and 8,000 words, depending on your level of study and the subject)
Exams form the totality of assessments in some universities, in others they will be common but permeated with alternative methods of assessment. There are two broad kinds of exam questions – problem questions and essay questions. Problem questions offer up a fact pattern and ask you to apply the law you know to the situation; essay questions ask you to review the law/literature and contribute your own perspective. If you’re studying for an exam, you have to equipped to go into a room, usually with no notes, and respond to the questions in the paper. Revision is going to be lots of learning, making sure you understand the content (rather than simply memorising it), and applying it to the facts. It will be a whole lot easier to do things this way around! Some people are gifted memorisers, but this doesn’t leave as much scope to be able to apply the law you learn in a flexible and efficient way, and most of us aren't great at retaining information we've crammed. It may feel like more work during the semester, but it will make revision a much more pleasant and less tedious process.
Put the time into getting to know what your tutor is looking for from an exam. I can think of one of my lecturers in particular who was an absolute whizz on his subject and had a very formulaic idea of what would go into a problem question. Because he had an incredibly rational, procedural mind, and because he knew the answers to the questions he set, the level was incredibly high. For me at least, it was safer to answer an essay question rather than a problem question in any exams he set, because there was more room to take control of the question and move in your own direction. Don’t be afraid to do practice questions, chat things over with your lecturers and ask them what they expect of a 2:2, 2:1 and 1st class answer.
Top tips before an exam:
Go to lecturers if you have problems
Make sure you understand content as you go along
Make sure you can apply what you learn in a coherent, detailed structure, not just splurge it out on paper
Practice exam questions under timed conditions
Use whatever works for you in terms of flashcards/exam practice/spider diagrams etc. to revise, but unless you have a photographic memory, don’t just read your notes, try and do something interactive to engage with the content
By final year, I'd found my passion for essays. I love reading around one subject, becoming a little expert and playing with the words, concepts and existing literature to build my own miniature thesis. It's certainly not for everyone. Essays require a more individualistic, ongoing commitment to learn and formulate a position, and put this in writing. Reading is self-driven; you need to find a topic, resources, and a structure for your work. The display of knowledge is done in a very different way, shown in how well you've engaged with the law and previous writings on the law. An essay can be tailored to your interests and abilities in a way that an exam can't. You're in complete control of your essay, whereas your lecturers may have very fixed expectations of what they want to see in an exam script.
Because research is more independent, try to bounce ideas off other people. Modules with set coursework will offer you the opportunity to chat things through with your course mates.
As a side note, law can be competitive and law students generally don’t relish teamwork in a university context, but trust me, as someone who resisted teamwork for years, I’ve been humbled and I’ll admit I was wrong to doubt it. Teamwork really can make a dream work. One of my lecturers pressed teamwork in all of the modules she taught in and convened. I hated it to be honest, there’s the awkwardness of disagreement, potentially language barriers, different attitudes and approaches to work, people come equipped and ill-equipped, it’s a mish-mash of personalities and you’re unlikely to gel with everyone… but you have something to learn in all of this, you have skills to improve, whether it’s communication, patience, humility, preparation, attention to detail, eloquence or openness, so roll with the teamwork and at the very least discuss the question with a friend or two on your course.
In other modules, you might be doing independent research, with no other students to turn to. In this case, you’ll usually have a supervisor, or a member of staff you can go to and pitch ideas to. Make the most of them! Pitch your plan, see what they suggest, where they see gaps in your thinking or opportunities to develop what you think. Quiz them on uncertainties, where to find sources, how to present your work… Their time is valuable and can be incredibly useful to you for some inspiration and extra direction in your work.
Top tips for coursework assessments:
Don’t be afraid to go to your lecturers if you have questions, just make sure you’ve researched in advance
Keep a clear record of references as you go along – footnotes take time and you’ll make life much easier for yourself if you clearly record what you find and where as you go along. The best method I was given was to take fifteen minutes to set out a good spreadsheet where you can document all the materials you read, complete with references, and notes divided into a few key topics you’ll be addressing
Top tips for an essay:
Work hard on the research stage before you start drafting
Have a good plan of what you’ll write before you start – if you’re doing an extended piece, it may change the more research you do (your research is like a little living thing you’re in control of, you have to grow and shape it as you see fit over time, so invest in it and keep making sure it looks how you want it to look)
Go and see lecturers if you're struggling
Reflect on progress
I can’t recommend reflection enough! I don’t mean airy-fairy thinking, I mean pro-active feedback.
Get feedback on your exams, no matter how good or how bad they were. Ask your lecturers and tutors for advice, a reason why you got a specific mark, and how to improve next time. Whether the assessor has left you a million comments or just one or two, it’s useful to get some in-person advice and discuss things in more detail.
Spend a bit of time thinking about your approach personally too. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, but just have a quick review of what went well, what you wish you’d done, where you work best, when you work best, where your red lines are, who you work best with… and change your work accordingly. These factors might be in constant fluctuation. Some days, you might work best in a library, with some accountability around you, other days, all you’ll want to do is snuggle up on a sofa or in bed with a book and your laptop… just get to know what works for you and be disciplined about your schedule when you have to be.
Beyond Law School
The temptation in university is to live solely for the moment. By all means enjoy the university experience, the bubble of living with your peers, away from home, being almost exclusively in control of your own time and decisions… but keep an eye on the horizon. I hate to be the nagging parent killjoy, but it’s good to think beyond graduation. Be informed of the opportunities you have and the direction you think you’re heading in, because to be successful you'll want to put in the groundwork during your studies.
Legal experience is crucial if you’re looking to go into practice. If you’re not sure yet (which is absolutely fine) best to put in the effort and dabble, test the waters and see what you enjoy. If you think you would like to practice, look into further legal experience. Qualifying into law and getting a training contract, or a pupillage, can be a very prescribed route, if you’re informed, work hard, and want to follow the path firms neatly lay out for you. Law firms offer very set opportunities for students, with formal applications, and I would really encourage students to apply for these events and experiences as soon as possible.
Corporate law options
Pre-university work experience is a growing area of interest for firms and opportunities are available. I did a work experience week with Pinsent Masons when I was doing my A-Levels, all through an online application process, with a group of about 20-30 others. If you know the firms you’re looking at, just keep looking to see if there are any options available to apply online. Also look for Sutton Trust, and other summer schools you can do if you’re interested in law. Aside from structured opportunities, you may have a chance if you have a contact somewhere, but large law firms have increasingly cut down on ‘informal’ work experience, so this strategy might not work everywhere.
First year schemes are available at many large law firms. This may involve a day or two at the firm’s offices, networking, seminar sessions, skills-sessions, advice on applications, and potentially pairing you up with a ‘buddy’ – someone you can contact throughout your legal studies and applications. Some of these schemes offer you an opportunity to go and visit a European office in the firm. Others offer longer in the firm than a day or two. These are great opportunities and I’m still in touch with some of the people I met on my first-year schemes. I was given advice, contacts, support with applications and strategy, and an insight into corporate law which enthused me to carry on.
Second-year schemes are sometimes requisite if you’re on a four-year degree, rather than attending in your first-year. The activities and exposure is generally the same as the above, people tend to do one or the other, but not both.
Vacation schemes are typically for penultimate year students (i.e. second years for most people, and third years if you’re on a four-year degree). These are a great way to genuinely see whether a particular kind of law is for you. They last between one and four weeks, you’ll most likely be sitting in a specific practice area in the firm (you may have been able to submit a preference, so do a little research and think ahead), working within a team, with a supervisor and a trainee ‘buddy’ who will help you, take you for coffee and answer any questions you feel too awkward to ask your supervisor (usually an associate). A vacation scheme is not only a good way to see if law, and a specific law firm, is for you, it’s a good gateway to a training contract. Generally, there will be an interview at the end of the vacation scheme for the training contract.
Pro bono is available at most universities. This might offer you the opportunity to meet, interview and help real clients and some contact with the ‘real world’ of legal practice. It may or may not be the kind of law you think you’d like the practice, but it’s all good experience helping you ascertain where you’d like to be after university, and it’s building key skills you can use in any profession, and reference in applications.
Citizens Advice Bureau or something similar can be a good opportunity volunteering if you’re thinking you may be interested in a career either in the courts or litigation.
High street firms can sometimes offer more flexible options than large firms. It’s worth dropping any places local to you an email to see whether there are any short- or long-term opportunities to help out and gain experience. I did a couple of days at a high street firm one summer and was able to see a real range of areas of legal practice, getting a flavour of what is done in practice and what interests me.
In-house experience is also great to experience something completely different. This is a legal team which sits in a company or bank or business and if you have contacts or can send emails to prospective options, getting some in-house insight can improve your exposure to law and offer an insight into a different style of practice. I did three months of in-house work experience in the summer after my first year, and was able to ask questions, get familiar with key legal documents and how they are drafted, what good drafting looks like, and help in the drafting of some documents and correspondence. It was a good insight not just into law but into how a business works and what kind of registers and records companies need to keep. It's not essential, but if you can get some similar experience, it will help your decision-making and legal awareness.
Use term-time and holidays to build up this experience. Not only does it look good on a CV, but it equips you with skills for practice, and justifications when interview questions come in the form of ‘why this firm/job/profession/type of law?’
The aim of any experience is to build skills and gain exposure to legal practice (or anything else you might be interested in). You’re trying to improve your ability to practice and see what you enjoy. To encourage you, this is never going to be a waste of time; even if you choose not to go into law, you will have improved your communication skills, interview technique, planning, attention to detail and a whole host of other skills in the process of gaining experience, wherever life takes you.
Enjoying Law School
Try and pick modules you enjoy and can succeed in. Whether it’s focussing on exams or essays, or a specific module you find interesting, a lecturer you find particularly engaging and reliable… whatever your reason, try and pick the best option for you. Think ahead in terms of career, and in terms of the exams.
As a law student, you have very flexible working time. If you want to play sport, volunteer read, or enjoy nights out… your timetable is almost always going to accommodate those things, so take advantage of it before you start working life! You can probably afford to do far more in your time outside of class than your science-based buddies, so plan your time, find something you enjoy and escape the books wherever possible!