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Study law for a versatile degree

What have Barack Obama, Derren Brown, Gandhi, Jerry Springer, John Cleese, Gerard Butler, Nelson Mandela, Henri Matisse, Margaret Thatcher, Franz Kafka, Sandy Toksvig, and Gaby Logan got in common?

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8 January 2015 / by Professor Gary Slapper / legal-blog

A blog article by New York University global professor Professor Gary Slapper

What have Barack Obama, Derren Brown, Gandhi, Jerry Springer, John Cleese, Gerard Butler, Nelson Mandela, Henri Matisse, Margaret Thatcher, Franz Kafka, Sandy Toksvig, and Gaby Logan got in common? Not much – other than that they all studied law.

A law degree is the most versatile of qualifications. It can prepare you for a career in law, and so much more. There is really just one career for a graduate of dental surgery but for law graduates there are multifarious paths to success.

A good legal mind can benefit the world in a rainbow variety of ways. Many law graduates proceed to become solicitors or barristers but, equally, many others use the qualification to become successful in commercial life, the media, the civil service, corporations, local government, teaching, campaign organisations, and politics - over 80 MPs, for example, have law degrees.

Law is something that affects everyone, all the time. The law is everyone's law. Law permeates into every cell of social life. It governs everything from the embryo to exhumation. It governs the air we breathe, the food and drink that we consume, our travel, sexuality, family relationships, our property, technology, sport, science, employment, business, education, health, everything from neighbour disputes to war.

As law touches all parts of life, who gets to be the lawyers and judges in our society is important. The American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld said that a lawyer is basically the person who knows the rules of the country. He said we are all throwing the dice, playing the game, moving our pieces around the board, but if there is a problem, the lawyer is the only person who has read the instructions.

Law governs every facet of human life so there is something in the discipline for everyone, including the law related to science, technology, sport, entertainment, business, politics, finance, insurance, criminal justice, banking, accidents, families, employment, property, cars, medicine, and international affairs.

Law graduates show prowess in many of the abilities employers now rank as critically important. A university legal education equips students with a formidable library of knowledge and a magnificent portfolio of skills. Law degrees certify that their holders have a high command of literature, unusual communication skill, rigorous powers of analysis, numeracy, IT proficiency, argumentative and evaluative prowess, advanced problem-solving capability, the ability to research thoroughly and accurately, and presentational expertise.

Not everyone who opts to study law does so for the same reason, or with high ideals. In an episode of The Simpsons, there is a moment when the juvenile delinquent Jimbo Jones has a go at helping a group of local people who are trying to cut down crime in their community. But things go badly wrong for him. He turns around to another group member and says:

“Hey man, You’ve really let me down. Now, I don’t believe in anything anymore. I’m joining Law School”

However, joining law school is, for most students, an entrance through the portals of inspiring intellectual power into a world vibrant with the science of reasoning, and the art of persuasion.

If you play Monopoly, chess, or football, it is a great advantage to know the rules well. The law is the rulebook applicable to the entire canvas of life. It is a rulebook rich in history, intrigue, thrills, cunning, comedy, and tragedy. Those who are expert in its contents are indispensable. As a matter of social health, there should be law graduates everywhere to guard against the danger once observed by the author John le Carré: “it’s always wonderful what a lawyer can achieve when nobody knows the law”.

Professor Gary Slapper is Global Professor at New York University, Director of NYU London, and a door tenant at 36 Bedford Row. The third edition of his book How the Law Works is published by Routledge. He is on Twitter @garyslapper.

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