Law degrees have always been among the most sought-after and widely respected courses to study at university. For many, a law degree is the first step along the path to a career in the legal sector, often followed by the further study and training needed to become a practicing solicitor or barrister. However, this is certainly not the only reason to study law at university. Law degrees are notoriously challenging, and for many students, the attraction lies in the unique combination of human interest and intellectual stimulation provided.
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What is law?
It may seem obvious, but what is law? Law, or legal studies, comes into contact with almost every area of human life, touching upon issues relating to business, economics, politics, the environment, human rights, international relations and trade. It is telling that the first academic degrees developed were all related to law. As a law student, you can expect to learn how to tackle some of the most problematic – indeed, often seemingly irresolvable – conflicts and issues in modern society and morality. In providing a framework through which to examine and understand different societies and cultures, law degrees are a useful way to prepare not only for specific legal careers, but for a broad range of professional roles – and indeed, for life in general.
Types of law degrees
There are lots of different types of law degrees available, varying according to where you study. In most countries, law degrees take the form of an LLB (Bachelor of Laws) which allows you to go on to take the national Bar or Law Society qualifying examinations, in order to becoming a practicing lawyer. In some countries, a BA in Law (BL) or a BSc in Law is in place instead. Often, these alternative names are used interchangeably. However, some universities differentiate between LLB and BA Law programs, with the former focusing exclusively on law and the latter allowing students to take course modules in other subjects, with a focus on humanities.
The US and Japan offer a Juris Doctor (JD), which is also offered in Canada, Australia and Hong Kong. In such countries, legal studies are focused at graduate level (after completion of a bachelor’s degree in a different discipline) with students earning their JD in order to practice. The JD will typically take three years to complete. There is also an option to earn a one year Master of Laws (LLM) degree in area of specialization (such as tax law) after earning a JD. Foreign lawyers can also study to receive an LLM in order to practice in countries which require a JD. In order to qualify for a postgraduate degree in law, undergraduate students in the US must take and pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
While most LLM and JD programs are primarily aimed at preparing students for legal careers, it’s also possible to take graduate-level law degrees with a greater focus on academic research. These may be referred to either as a PhD in Law, Doctor of Laws, or Doctor of Juridical Science (JSD). It is also possible to do an intensive two-year law course, or vocational courses of varying length.
What to expect from law degrees
Like most academic degrees, law programs start with compulsory core courses, and more opportunities to choose law topics tailored to a particular career path later on. Teaching is through a combination of lectures, seminars, group work, presentations, class debates and ‘mooting sessions’ – practical law training in a courtroom setting to help students master important legal skills such as research and analysis, public speaking and argument formation.
Some institutions allow law students to spend a year studying abroad, particularly if they are combining law with a foreign language. Some may also provide students with the chance to work pro bono (voluntarily) with real-life clients, as a way to gain invaluable experience and gaining legal skills that will help when applying for positions later on.
Core, compulsory modules you may encounter in law degrees include: introduction to legal techniques, introduction to the legal system, introduction to legal research, reasoning and literacy skills. Other law topics likely to be on offer include: constitutional law, criminal law, criminology, business law equity and trusts, human rights, international law (public or private), jurisprudence, labor law, land law, law and government, law and society, law and the individual, law of contract, law of Tort, legal methods, maritime law and tax law.
As you might expect, law degrees cover a diverse range of subjects with the aim of providing a generalized understanding of human society and its laws. Having gained a strong foundation in the main principles and concerns of law, you can then tailor your degree to suit your particular interests. This could mean choosing to specialize in a particular field of law or in a particular culture or society, or indeed branch outwards into a related field of interest such as business or politics. Some popular law topics chosen for specialization include:
Sometimes available as an entire degree in its own right, criminal law looks at different aspects of law relating to crime. You’ll learn about the theory of criminal law, and examine issues such as crime and gender, restorative justice, criminal justice, global crime problems, human rights, and socio-legal methods and theory. You’ll also study more specific aspects of criminal law such as homicide, mentally disordered offenders, European criminal law, the death penalty in law, legal responses to terrorism, sentencing, and victimization and victim policy.
Also known as land law, property law is the area of law concerned with real property (land, distinct from personal or moveable possessions) and personal property (movable property). You’ll study the concept of ‘interest in land’ – the term used to describe various categories of rights held by one person to use land that is in possession of another. Depending on the module, you may learn how and when to create these interests (through a contract, agreement or order of a court) and when these interests are valid in law. You’ll also learn about issues such as mortgages, tenancy rights and obligations, commercial property law, ownership, stocks, site acquisition, property management and construction law.
Intellectual property law
Also dealing with property, but of a different kind, intellectual property law is popularly offered as a dedicated degree. This field deals with intangible assets such as creations of the mind (musical, literary and artistic works), discoveries and inventions, words and phrases, and symbols and designs. You’ll learn about the economic, social and theoretical issues surrounding intellectual property (IP) and technology law. You’ll address issues such as policies affecting IP laws, trademark protection, patents and patent law and copyright. You’ll also look at IP in global and regional contexts, for example concentrating on European integration of IP laws, as well as undertaking in-depth exploration of what intellectual property constitutes.
Also known as business law, commercial law is the body of law that relates to the rights, contracts and conduct of people and businesses engaged in commerce and industry. Often considered to be a branch of civil law (non-criminal law), commercial law is again a large enough section of law to merit full dedicated degree programs. Incorporating elements of economics, business, management and finance, commercial law involves learning about all the legal issues involved in operating a business. This covers law topics such as small business law, regulation of corporate contracts, tax classifications, personnel hiring and firing, zoning and licensing issues and wider-ranging business issues such as securities law, intellectual property, secured transactions, pensions and benefits, trusts and estates, immigration and labor laws, and bankruptcy. A related field is corporate law, which deals with the financial and structural situation(s) encountered by an established company, and the legal advice surrounding the day-to-day dealings of such a company.
The body of law concerning the protection, maintenance, regulation and enhancement of the environment, environmental law regulates the interaction of humanity and the natural environment. As agencies, businesses and corporations seek to reduce the environmental impact of their practices, environmental law has become an increasingly popular specialization. Environmental law is an interdisciplinary field merging law, politics and human rights to cover a huge variety of issues pertaining to the environment. You’ll learn about global environmental laws in areas such as climate control, resource conservation, environmental protection, natural resources and climate change policies, along with gaining an understanding of local or national environmental laws such as noise control, remediation and energy regulation and policy.
As you might deduce, family law is an area of law pertaining to family-related matters. You’ll learn about a range of family law issues regarding parents, children and child protection, marriage, civil partnership, cohabitation, divorce, human rights, adoption and surrogacy among others. You’ll learn how to use the law to resolve disputes within families, including the termination of relationships and subsequent matters, child abuse and child abduction, paternity testing and juvenile adjudication. You may also learn about international family law, including transnational and interstate issues, along with specific subjects such as international child law which examines how children are protected through both public and private international law. You may also explore contemporary issues such as commercial surrogacy, paternity laws, corporal punishment, press reporting of the family courts and child soldiers.
Other possible law topics you might choose to specialize in include: chancery law (estates and trusts), civil law, corporate law, entertainment law, immigration law, maritime law, media law, mental health law, social law, sports law, tax law and many others.
If those above don’t appeal, how about:
- Employment law – addressing contracts, employment claims such as unfair dismissal, redundancy and discrimination;
- Healthcare law – concerning laws and regulations in regards to public health;
- Insurance law – concerning the regulation of insurance, insurance policies and claims;
- Patent law – focusing on patent grants for inventions and new technologies;
- International law – regarding the sets of rules accepted as binding in relations between states and nations rather than between individual citizens.
You may also specialize in legal studies within particular cultures or regions; possible law topics of this kind include:
Addressing the moral code and religious law of Islam called Sharia, Islamic law encompasses many topics both addressed in secular law and present in contemporary society, including crime, politics, economics, property, family matters, marriage and children. You’ll learn about the history and development of Islamic law, its application to contemporary jurisdiction and the various applications of Islamic law in different regions, such as the Middle East and South Asia. You’ll also look at the relationship between sacred texts and human reason in developing Islamic law, and explore criticisms and dissents surrounding Islamic law.
European Union law
The study of European Union law concerns the treaties and legislation that have a direct or indirect effect on the laws of European Union (EU) member states. The EU is entirely based on the rule of law – assuming every action taken by the group as a whole is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all member states – and EU law has equal force with national law within each member state. In this specialization you’ll learn about the founding and development of the EU, its structure and institutional functioning and the processes underlying the creation of EU law. You will examine how EU law impacts on the lives of EU citizens, companies and service providers, and investigate and analyze relevant contemporary crises and conflicts.
Focusing on the United States Constitution, which sets out the boundaries of federal law, treaties, regulations and case law (precedents) in the US, US law explores the US legal system and its foundations, the importance of the US constitution (regarded as the supreme law of the land) and the role of the constitution in modern US society. You’ll gain an insight into all aspects of US law, including intellectual property, international business transactions, mergers and acquisitions, alternative dispute resolution and so forth. You’ll also learn about how the US constitution affects the role of practicing lawyers in the US, and analyze and address contemporary legal questions in the US.
In order to advance further in the legal sector, many graduates opt to continue their legal training beyond undergraduate level. The specific type of legal training required varies depending on the country of study/legal practice, and also the type of legal career aspired to. Often it involved a combination of further study and examinations, as well as a set period of practical legal training provided by completing formal work placements.
In England and Wales, for instance, legal training for aspiring solicitors comprises the one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC) followed by a two-year placement as a trainee solicitor. While some jurisdictions grant a ‘diploma privilege’ to certain institutions which allow students who earn a degree or credential from those institutions to go directly into practicing law, Germany, Canada and Australia all require law graduates to complete vocational legal education before they are accepted as practicing lawyers; this can take the form of a formal apprenticeship with an experienced practitioner. Meanwhile some countries, such as Mexico, allow anyone with a law degree to practice law immediately.
Unsurprisingly, many law graduates go on to pursue careers within the legal sector. As explained above, prominent legal careers usually require further study and training. You may find the legal systems of different countries use different words to describe certain legal careers. Indeed when it comes to the titles of ‘barrister’ and ‘solicitor’, lawyers may hold either title but still be able to practice as both. Some law graduates may even start off as one and then decide to become the other. A lawyer will usually only hold one of the two titles. Some countries also fuse the two titles together, simply calling practitioners ‘lawyers’. Some popular careers chosen by law graduates include:
A barrister (or advocate in places such as Scotland, Belgium, South Africa, Israel, the Isle of Man and Brazil) specializes in representing clients (individuals or organizations) in court. As a barrister, you will generally be hired by solicitors to represent a case at court, only becoming involved when advocacy before a court is needed. You will provide legal advice for your client and plead the case on behalf of your client and your client’s solicitor. Members of the public can also go directly to a barrister to ask for advice and representation in court, rather than via a solicitor. As a barrister, you’ll likely be specialized in a particular area of law, such as criminal, common or entertainment law. Most barristers work on a self-employed basis, but as part of a ‘chambers’ which allows them to share administrative expenses, while others are employed permanently by government departments, agencies, charities, corporations or solicitors firms. Although historically barristers were called counselors in the US, there is now no distinction between barristers (lawyers who plead cases) and solicitors (laws who act as agents for their client). Both are now called attorneys.
Working for a barrister or group of barristers, a barrister’s clerk (or advocate’s clerk in places such as Scotland) runs the administrative and business activities involved. From diary and fees management to business development and marketing, a barrister’s clerk makes sure all the barrister’s affairs are in order, both as a legal practice and as a business. Not only will you be familiar with court procedures and etiquette, you will also need to be aware of the standards that a barrister’s chambers will have to adhere to, including maintaining appropriate accreditation. You will also develop an expertise in the type of law undertaken by the barrister(s) you are assisting.
A solicitor (or attorney in South Africa) provides legal advice on a wide range of subjects (both personal and business affairs) and is often tasked with explaining the law to clients, who can include individuals, groups, public sector organizations and private companies. You may act on behalf of your client in court (or instruct a barrister to do so) and throughout all legal negotiations in issues such as property transactions, wills, divorce and child custody, compensation claims and business contracts. You’ll need to prepare and research documents, letters and other paperwork in order to represent your client to the best of your ability. You may be working for a private law firm, or be employed by central or local government agencies, banks or other commercial organizations. Many solicitors also use some of their time on a pro bono basis (voluntarily and without pay), for those unable to pay for access to legal services.
Employed by a business or organization, company secretaries ensure the company complies with relevant legislation, on a local, national or global basis. In countries such as India, private companies with a certain amount of share capital are required by law to appoint a company secretary, usually a senior board member. Using a thorough understanding of laws that affect the company’s area of interest, and through monitoring changes in relevant legislation, a company secretary will be responsible for ensuring the efficient administration of your company in regards to legal and statutory requirements. Also known as a chartered secretary, or simply ‘secretary’, a company secretary acts as the point of communication between the board of directors and company shareholders, organizing and taking minutes during board meetings, maintaining statutory books, dealing with correspondence and advising members of the legal, governance, accounting and tax implications of proposed policies when required.
While a paralegal cannot provide legal advice to clients, they do provide experienced and skilled services to lawyers and their clients. However, in Ontario, Canada, they are considered a formal part of the legal system. You will need to have experience and knowledge in the area of law in which you are working, whether you are handling small claims or supporting property conveyance. You will be handling client caseloads, filing case documents, and researching cases and legal information for your employer, as well as drafting documents and letters. Duties for more experienced paralegals include taking statements from and interviewing clients and witnesses, providing legal information and attending court or presenting applications to judges. Most paralegals are employed by law firms, in the legal department of private companies, in the public or not-for-profit sector, in civil and criminal courts or in the police, enforcement or defense forces. They are known as a judicial scrivener in Japan and South Korea.
Other careers for law graduates
While law graduates are well-suited for specific legal careers, studying a law degree does not limit you to roles specifically in this field. Like other social science subjects, the academic challenges provided by law degrees can be good preparation for a broad range of different career paths. Other sectors you might consider as a law graduate include: accountancy, banking, business and management, commerce, finance, government, HR and recruitment, journalism, marketing and PR, media, politics, publishing, teaching, the civil service, not-for-profit and NGOs, or think tanks and policy development.