How to make the most of legal study: students share their experiences
Studying law can bring about a mixture of thoughts, feelings and attitudes. As many of you who read this will be in the position of studying law, we have collected reflections from people who have experienced every stage of legal study. They are here to help you learn from their insights and failings, but most of all to encourage you to make the most of the opportunity you have to study law. Some have asked to remain anonymous with consideration to the firms they now work for.
Undergraduate Study – Hannah Baynes
(Hannah was at the time of writing studying the LLB at Liverpool University.)
To say that a Law degree is one of the most difficult, time-consuming and brain-engaging subjects to study is certainly not a lie. To study Law requires diligence and determination, and I would probably go as far to say that without God, my time at University would have been a much more stressful time. For without His peace, I don't think I could have ever coped with the ridiculously long reading lists, or endured the totally brain-numbing exam periods.
I am not saying this to put you off studying Law - I have found my time at University incredibly rewarding. That is not to say that there are not times when I wish that I was studying an 'easy' degree, when I envy my music student friends for all their spare time. Being at University may well have taught me how to cram for exams and how to write a 2500 word essay in one night, but when I think back to when I decided to study Law, when God first gave me a passion for justice and a desire to do something with my life that would enable the marginalised to have a voice, I know that this is where God wants me to be.
Law is invariably taught from a secular perspective, and so it can be easy to wonder where our God of justice is it all, or how the Bible fits into the study of Tort law, for instance. However, Law and Christianity do not need to be polar opposites. In fact, we worship a God who loves the Law, and we are told in the Bible that we will be blessed if we delight in the Law and "meditate on it day and night" (Psalm 1:2). Law can be a stressful course, but I have found that as I rely upon God to help me in my studies, He gives me an inner strength and peace that could come from no one else.
Studying Law certainly requires you to work hard, but I would not advise you to be so consumed with studying that you have time for nothing else. An important part of being a student is building strong friendships with those around you, both Christian and non-Christian, and learning how to live independently and prioritise your time, both work and play. One of the most important things to do as a Christian Law student is to find a church where you can serve God and grow in your relationship with Him. Something else that is important is to join an LCF group, or if there isn't one at your University, to start one yourself. During my first year, I was unsure of how God fitted into my study of Law. However, after setting up an LCF group in Liverpool and meeting up with other Christian Law students to pray together and explore what it means to be a Christian Law student the whole of my studies were given a clearer focus.
Many people study Law in order to make money, or to make a name for themselves. But for Christians, it should be different. Our sole aim should be to glorify God, whether that is by working hard for our exams or by investing in friendships with non-Christian course-mates.
Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) – Anonymous
The GDL is a brief but intense academic course- only 10 months long, yet covering the core subject matter for what is otherwise a 3-year law degree. As a student, you will need to commit a consistent amount of time and effort to your studies from the beginning of the course (or from now on, at least) as cramming for exams is a terrible idea in a course that covers so much. While you shouldn't panic if you feel as though you are falling behind, don't be complacent about consolidating and summarising your notes, as there is not much time to go back and do this later on. Some of the topics seem conceptually difficult when you first encounter them, however towards the end of the course they begin to form a more cohesive and logical structure, and an overview of the legal system begins to make more sense.
I think the most helpful advice I was given during the course is to consider the regularly-examined topics from past papers as well as the way in which your provider tends to set exam questions. This will help you to focus your efforts on the sorts of topics that are likely to be examined and to use the tutorials to practice answering exam-type questions in the appropriate way.
The GDL is an exercise in time management. Many of my peers believe that the objective of the course is not so much the accumulation of information as it is the skill of balancing a large workload and utilising limited time resources to extract the most relevant information from the materials.
It is so important during this time to keep on prioritising your time with God and meeting with other Christians. By being solely focussed on the coursework you risk becoming isolated and weak. It is easy to overestimate the intensity of the course and take yourself too seriously. Worship, fellowship and prayer will help you to keep a proper sense of perspective as well as emboldening you to share the Gospel with fellow students- a role you are uniquely positioned to undertake at your campus.
Set your values and priorities in quiet time with God. Then use these to plan your commitments and schedule your responsibilities. Don't agree to every invitation or request, but at the same time, beware of living an unbalanced lifestyle as it is possible to burn out even in the short space of the GDL academic year, and so in addition to fellowship and prayer, I found exercise to be a great defence against burnout, boredom or the blues.
Studying law in the United Kingdom is an amazing privilege and, as with most things, the way you view this year will significantly affect your experience of it. Remember that God is in control of every aspect of your life and trust in his plan for you. This is a year to be enjoyed, not simply endured. There is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of fun to be had. Seek the guidance of God in getting that balance right and he will be glorified through your reliance on him.
The GDL teaches you about priorities, and about trusting in God's sovereignty over all things. It also teaches you about the law, although on reflection it seems that some of the most important lessons do not appear on my report card.
Bar Vocational Course (BVC) – Alisdair Henderson
Alisdair studied the BVC at BPP from 2008-09 and at the tme of writing was a Pupil at Matrix Chambers.
Warning: the first thing those of you about to begin the vocational stage of training to become a barrister should know is that you're about to be immersed in a bewildering world of acronyms. I studied the BVC last year at BPP, where I had several SGSs and LGSs a week, had to complete a PDF and did various FAs, SAs and MCTs on, amongst other things, the CPRs. Don't worry, that'll all make a little more sense soon.
Many people will tell you that, quite apart from the confusing acronyms, the BVC is a necessary evil; a frustrating, pointless year that you have to get through in order to progress to the 'real' training – pupillage. There is some degree of truth in this. The BVC involves quite a lot of work and is fairly time-consuming, especially (at BPP at least) up until Christmas. However, much of the work is not that difficult compared with an undergraduate degree, and certainly not compared with any academic postgraduate qualification or the CPE/GDL. As a result it can be hard to motivate yourself to work diligently. This is especially so if you have pupillage already (if so, congratulations, and give thanks to God!), but even if like the majority of students you don't yet have pupillage, it isn't that much easier to get motivated.
I found the most difficult things about being a Christian on the BVC were working out how my faith should make me distinctive and how to develop lots of friendly, but fairly shallow, acquaintances into deeper friendships and open up opportunities to talk about the gospel. One of the most obvious solutions to both these problems is to get on with your work efficiently and not complain about the course. Everyone else will moan constantly, so you can be very different, and by spending less time complaining and procrastinating, you'll free up time for getting to know people and other useful activities. Sadly, I didn't figure this out until most of the way through the year; hopefully you can do better!
Why is this possible? Well, as Christians, we have a very different motivation for our work from non-believers. Colossians 3:23-24 says: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for me, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." We do not work for man's praise, or our own glory, but for the sake of Jesus. God has put us where we are and is sovereign over everything that will happen to us this year. This is an enormous comfort to Christians; we don't need to stress about exams, getting pupillage or filling our CV because we know we will receive a far greater reward of eternal life.
So use the BVC year well – do your work diligently and don't moan about it, and you'll find that if you are efficient you will have plenty of time for other things. I'd encourage you to get stuck into pro bono work (very satisfying, a good way to serve, and great training), get more involved with serving at your church or with the LCF, or use the access to libraries and databases to read up about Christian perspectives on law and do some thinking about what your role as a Christian in the legal profession should be. Above all, set good patterns for your working life, and cultivate the Colossians' 3:23 attitude to your work.
Legal Practice Course (LPC) – Anonymous
The crowded room wasn't paying much attention. The regulars sat in their regular spots, listening to the teacher drone on. So no one paid any extra attention when the guy rose to read from the Scriptures. He opened it up to the next passage, and read "The Lord's Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, "This is the year the Lord has chosen".'[i]
The knowledge that Jesus stood up, and said he was here to bring justice motivated me to continuing studying the LPC. That's how I got through the year. Perhaps I should finish writing now! But I won't…!
If I had a pound for everytime my tutors on the LPC told me that law was all about money, I would've been a much richer student. I wasn't the only Christian in the class on the LPC – but I was the only LCFer, the only one to speak up as a Christian. I struggled with the focus on money. I struggled with the injustice of some of the case studies. I struggled trying to find any justice in others. I struggled trying to see how Jesus fit in at all to what I was studying. I struggled to mention God to my fellow students – this is my favourite reply I got from one student:
Judge to the prisoner in the dock – "Would you like a lawyer to defend you?"
Prisoner – "There's no need. The Lord is my defender."
Judge – "I think you'd do better to have someone better known locally."
I continually found myself coming back to that passage in Luke. What kept me going was the knowledge that Jesus had one day faced his peers and proclaimed he was going to fight for justice, and, well, we all know how hard Jesus found that at times. At least the LPC didn't cause me to sweat blood.
Practically, I kept going to LCF meetings at my campus, just knowing that other people locally knew the Lord helped. I went to the LCF student's conference, and when I felt low I looked at the notes I'd made then. I went to Africa with the LCF too, and I have a picture on my wall as a permanent reminder of justice in Rwanda. But it was a dry year – probably my driest spiritual year in a long time. Maybe you can't go to the conference, I can't afford it this year. Maybe you don't have an LCF group. But I bet you can get hold of these excellent books:
The LCF's 'Law & Justice Bible Studies'; Gary Haugen's 'Good News about Injustice' and Tim Chester's 'Good News to the Poor'. And I bet you've got a Bible – I recommend reading Isaiah. Circle every time it mentions the word justice. My Bible had it 40 times. The passages contained therein are so strong – God is love, God is just and his tips on how to be a decent lawyer jump out chapter after chapter!
I found the LPC great in teaching me what forms to fill out. But I found the ethics of how to be a lawyer in those books mentioned above. I glimpsed the lawyer our Dad wants us to be, which is to glimpse the love our God has. In Luke 4, Jesus is teaching the people from Isaiah – so I recommend as a survival tip of the LPC that you "Learn to live righteously, seek justice, defend the widows, fight for the rights of orphans, and help those in need." [ii]