I’ve mentored a number of law students over the past few years. A common question that I get is, “which subjects should I be doing at law school?”
Law school can be a pressured, confusing time in your life. You’re surrounded by highly ambitious types, who love reading the tea leaves into what would give them an “edge” when they enter the workplace, preferably a large commercial law firm. There is a tendency to buy into bogus logic like, “taking X, Y, Z subject is essential” or “you need to have legal clinic experience on your CV if you ever want to get a look-in from employers”.
The reality is that what subjects you take at law school doesn’t matter. It matters that you enjoy what you do. And for obvious reasons, passing your exams matters. But beyond these basic requirements, there is no formula for success later on in your career or life.
When I think about the subjects I did at law school beyond the compulsory modules, most of them were forays into the unknown. Medical Law was a subject I thought I’d have a yen for, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. It was a surprise given that Torts was one of my favourite subjects at law school. I guess I couldn’t bear reading about medical procedures gone wrong, or the fact that we had to purchase the mandated textbook written by our lecturer which comprised the course in itself.
If I really had to choose
All this aside, if I had to choose the most important subject I did at law school, it’s this—Jurisprudence (or Legal Theory as it was known).
Put simply, jurisprudence is the philosophy or theoretical study of law. It allows you to critique laws that we have accepted for hundreds of years, held closely by the black-letter lawyers who also often happen to be the most celebrated practitioners in the land. Jurisprudence is a big word, but it poses a very simple premise—”what if?”
What if our laws aligned with our view of justice or the accepted moral norms of our time? What if our laws were drafted by different people, those not in established positions of power? What if our laws had to conform with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—would it look different?
Jurisprudence requires us to think more critically about the world and the legal constructs we hold as timeless. Are laws that deprive those of their human rights, real laws at all? Sadly jurisprudence was, at least in my law school, one of the most pilloried subjects and in the words of some, “a complete a waste of time” because it didn’t reflect reality.
In 2021, as we grapple with what the rule of law could possibly mean in the context of those most self-interested in its selective enforcement—jurisprudence gives us the tools to critically dissect their logic.
In a world where it’s all too easy to cut and paste, jurisprudence makes us think.
It makes us realise that there are different ways of reading the same words on a page and acknowledges that the legal system we have is far from perfect. It also gives us the room and possibility to imagine a different future.
- Bri Lee, Eggshell Skull (Allen & Unwin, 2018): Bri was a former judge’s associate at the Queensland District Court and daughter of a police officer. She cleverly dissects her journey in the law, both as a bystander and as someone personally affected by a sexual crime. With unique insight, she confronts her past and deficiencies of the legal system. A must-read for anyone who cares about making our legal system more just.
- New York Times Magazine, “Four hundred years after enslaved Africans were first brought to Virginia, most Americans still don’t know the full story of slavery” (19 August 2019): “The use of enslaved laborers was affirmed—and its continual growth was promoted—through the creation of a Virginia law in 1662 that decreed that the status of the child followed the status of the mother, which meant that enslaved women gave birth to generations of children of African descent who were now seen as commodities. This natural increase allowed the colonies—and then the United States—to become a slave nation. The law also secured wealth for European colonists and generations of their descendants, even as free black people could be legally prohibited from bequeathing their wealth to their children. At the same time, racial and class hierarchies were being coded into law: In the 1640s, John Punch, a black servant, escaped bondage with two white indentured servants. Once caught, his companions received additional years of servitude, while Punch was determined enslaved for life.”
- Michael J Sandel, “Justice – What’s the Right Thing to Do?” (Penguin Books, 2009).