Sumption v Virgo debate: Should prospective lawyers study Law at university?

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This week, the Law Faculty at Cambridge University will host a debate between Lord Sumption, a Justice of the Supreme Court, and Graham Virgo, who is a Professor at the Faculty here. The debate was sparked by remarks made by Sumption last year. He is reported to have said:

I think that it is best not to read law as an undergraduate … The problem is that we have a generation of lawyers, and this applies to solicitors as well as barristers, who are coming into the profession with much less in the way of general culture than their predecessors. It is very unfortunate, for example, that many of them cannot speak or read a single language other than their own …

Most arguments which pretend to be about law are actually arguments about the correct analysis and categorisation of the facts. Once you’re understood them it’s usually obvious what the answer is. The difficulty then becomes to reason your way in a respectable way towards it. That’s why the study of something involving the analysis of evidence, like history or classics, or the study of a subject which comes close to pure logic, like mathematics, is at least as valuable a preparation for legal practice as the study of law.

Appreciating how to fit legal principles to particular facts is a real skill. Understanding the social or business background to legal problems is essential. I’m not sure current law degrees train you for that, nor really are they designed to. This is not a criticism of the course. It’s simply a recognition of the fact that a command of reasoning skills, an ability to understand and use evidence, and broad literary culture are all tremendously valuable to any advocate. If you don’t have them you are going to find it difficult to practise. If you don’t know any law that is not a problem; you can find out.

It is unclear (from these reported remarks) why Sumption does not think that studying Law teaches “command of reasoning skills” or an “ability to understand and use evidence”. Nor is it clear why Sumption thinks that those who study Law lack an awareness of broader, cultural issues. Perhaps he assumes – mistakenly – that Law students spend their time locked away reading dusty tomes. The reality, of course, is that all university student specialise – and that with specialisation comes a focus on some things and not on others. But this rather misses one of the fundamental points of a university education: namely, that students do not spend their whole time engaging only with their own subject. One of the great strengths of studying at university is the opportunity to engage – through extra-curricular activities, public lectures, debates, and simply interacting with a cross-section of students – with a broad range of academic and other disciplines. To suppose, therefore, that Law students know nothing beyond the Law suggests a very narrow view of the nature and purpose of university study.

If accepted, then the argument set out above helps to establish that studying Law is not a bad thing, in that it does not preclude awareness of and engagement with the broader cultural matters that are of concern to Sumption. But is studying Law at university a positively good thing? Sumption appears to believe that ignorance of the Law (as opposed, say, to ignorance of “broad literary culture”) is unproblematic. Not knowing “any law”, he says, creates no difficulty – because “you can find it out”. The implicit suggestion is that Law is, in some sense, a straightforward matter that can simply be ascertained by consulting a book: and that students need not spend three years at university learning things that they could just as easily pick up as and when they need to.

Yet by adopting this stance, Sumption appears to fail to appreciate the nature of Law as an academic subject as it is taught in universities. One of the first things that Law students at Cambridge (and doubtless elsewhere) are told is that learning the Law is not simply about picking up and memorising factual information about the applicable rules. Rather, learning the Law – and learning to be and to think as a lawyer – is, in part, about appreciating that not all legal questions have clear-cut answers; that the meaning of a statutory text or a judicial decision may vary depending upon the perspective from which the matter is viewed; and that underlying the technical rules with which all lawyers have to grapple is a deeper layer of issues that engage such realms as morality, philosophy and politics.

Does this mean that people who have studied Law as a degree subject become better lawyers? Perhaps; although there are many excellent lawyers who did not study Law at university (Sumption being one of them). But what it clearly does mean is that Law, studied as an academic subject at university, is a rich and fascinating subject: and that even if Law can, at some level, be picked up in the way Sumption suggests, studying Law at university has far, far more to offer than a grasp of dry, technical rules.

In this week’s Cambridge Law Faculty debate, Sumption will defend the proposition: “Those Who Wish to Practise Law Should Not Study Law at University”. Virgo will oppose. For a foretaste of Virgo’s arguments, take a look at the two videos below, in which he argues that prospective lawyers should study Law, and that a Law degree also has a great deal to offer people who intend to work in other sectors. If you want to attend the debate, you will find more information about it here.

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