Congratulations, you’ve got your place, and you’re coming to university to study a law degree. So, how do you best prepare for that? What should you read? How much work can you do in advance? (NB: this advice is geared to incoming UK undergraduates. Anything I say which contradicts what your university tells you: go with what your university tells you.)
I’m going to give the sensible answer, which is rather short, and then go on to say more to those who are like me and won’t listen to that.
Good heavens, as little as possible. Read as little as you can get away with. Have fun. The law degree is seriously, seriously hard work. It’s so much reading. I adore reading: I was the kid for whom the ultimate punishment was having my books taken away (to which I responded by hiding a book in every room of the house). But I definitely shared the common sentiment at the end of last semester: I’m so glad that this is almost over, so I can do something other than read for awhile. I mean, please don’t get me wrong: I relish the challenge and am looking forward to returning. But burnout is real, the risk is particularly real for law students: why on earth would you make it worse for yourself by reading ahead of time? (I’m pretty sure one of my grades suffered last year because I was so completely exhausted by the time my final exam rolled around) And even the lecturers who were encouraging most of my year to read as much as possible once we started, telling us that we needed to work hard: that isn’t what they were saying to me. I would say “I’ve been reading ahead of time” or “I’m thinking of working more than 40 hours a week” and instead of the usual “the law degree is hard, grades are important, you can’t come to seminars unprepared” etc talk that they were giving everyone else… they told me to stop reading, get hobbies, get enough sleep, and look after myself. There is absolutely a thing as reading too much law.
But, OK, you’re someone like me who can’t wait to start, wants to maximise their grades, and isn’t going to pay much/ any attention to what I’ve just said. How do you best prepare yourself to hit the ground running?
I’d strongly urge you not to try to learn the material before your university teaches it to you (or, at least, no more than reading the relevant textbook chapter or equivalent a couple of days before the lecture), unless your university tells you otherwise. You may not get very far, it’s not that much of an advantage, and, seriously, think about burnout. You also may not know what’s on the syllabus or the particular angle your lecturers might take. (This is more true for some subjects than others. Trying to teach yourself equity and trusts cold is particularly daft: ask me how I know!)
Instead, I’d suggest two things: remind yourself why you want to study law (and have a think about how you do that), and get some basic skills.
Although I wasn’t the target audience, before I committed to the law degree I read What About Law?, which gave me an insight into the kind of subjects I was getting into. Comparing the book to my study so far, I’d say that this is definitely a glossy advertisement: it shows off some of the best (and hides the worse) that these subjects have to offer. But, you have plenty of time to become jaded (not that I’m that jaded): for now, just read it and let it inspire you. I also read, and really enjoyed, Letters to a Law Student, although some of it won’t apply to you just yet. It’s a really excellent guide.
I don’t have a specific recommendation for all areas of law, but, if you think criminal law or some form of fighting for justice might be for you, I’d strongly recommend The Justice Game. As it happens, I actually read this as part of my English curriculum when I was studying for my HSC (think A levels), but I re-read it in preparation for my law degree. It’s a real lighting a fire in the belly read. (Most of what I know about commercial law comes from practitioners)
I’d also suggest if you want to read, you read widely. Employers tout the benefits of hiring non-law students (who do a GDL) because they’re well rounded, they know about other things. Read some history, philosophy, science. There’s more to life than law (at least while you’re not at uni!).
There are also some skills you’ll need, and you’ll be at a serious advantage if you come to university with some of them already in place or with the groundwork set up. There are plenty of books on this subject, and it’s not possible for me to really recommend one (also, my university actually provided us with a copy when we started, so I’m loathed to suggest people go out and buy one on that basis). The following are skills you’ll be taught and/ or you’ll need to pick up as quickly as possible. Do you know how to write clearly, grammatically, and formally? How do you write an academic essay? What about a problem question? How do you go about legal research? How do you find and read a case, and how do you know what sections mean what? How do you construct a logical argument (IRAC was drilled into us)? How do you read for a purpose (reading a case is really not like reading a story- there’s a principle to be found among all the detail, and the detail is secondary)? Do you know which sources, when you’re doing research, are more important than others, or more reliable than others? Do you know how to reference (my university uses OSCALA – link to PDF – your university may vary)? Do you know what plagiarism is, why it’s bad, and how to avoid it? If all that’s not enough (!): an excellent bonus would be a speed reading course. I did one when I was fifteen, and my goodness it’s saved my bacon more than once this past year.
If this were me last year, I’d chill out, read some novels, go for walks in nature, anything but work. But that’s something you have to figure out on your own, and, if I had my time again and I couldn’t bear to not work, what I’ve suggested above won’t hurt at all.
As always, please do comment. What did you or would you read before you started your law degree? I’d love to hear your thoughts.