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Learning the Law

If I were to be completely honest about it, I’d say that I went through at least a third of my undergraduate law degree in virtual ignorance of the one thing you would expect a law student to know quite a bit about: case law. I didn’t really know how to find case law. When I did find it, I didn’t really know how to use it. I certainly didn’t know where it came from (or rather, I didn’t know where the law reports I was required to read came from).

Now, I’m not one of those people who studied law before the Internet-age. In fact, I studied law slap-bang in the middle of the Internet-age. As a student, I had access to all the Westlaw’s and LexisNexis’ you could shake your lecture notes at. I had it very easy and maybe that was the problem. I couldn’t find an actual printed law report on a library shelf. I couldn’t really tell where the headnote ended and where the judgment began. I didn’t even know what a ‘headnote’ was.

So, I’m going to take my admission that I knew zip about law reports a step further and humbly suggest that I was not, and am not, the only one. For all their virtues, the big online law databases suffer from one critical vice: they encourage you to forget that your law library exists and extends beyond the four-corners of your computer’s monitor.

At the beginning of my second year I stumbled upon an excellent little book called Learning the Law by a chap called Glanville Williams. My copy of this gem was printed in 1982 – well before Sonic the Hedgehog, Craig David and The Artful Dodger, and of course, access to this thing we call the Internet.

Professor Williams said some sensible stuff in Learning the Law and no matter how out-of-date my copy is, there’s plenty in there which still rings true today. Williams said,

He who wants to become a lawyer and not merely to pass law examinations (which is not at all the same thing), must learn to use legal materials, and must acquire the habit of first-hand work among what lawyers call the sources.

He went on,

The great disadvantage of confining oneself to textbooks and lecture notes [or Google and Wikipedia] is that it means taking all of one’s law at second hand. The law of England is contained in statutes and judicial decisions; what the text writer thinks is not, in itself, law. [my emphasis]

Professor Williams, if I understood him correctly, was essentially making two very important points. The first point is that in order to really understand the law, you actually need to read the law – you’ve got to get to grips with the primary sources. The second, and related point, is that the lawyer’s real skill isn’t about holding all of the law in one’s head — that’s impossible. The real skill is about knowing how to find the law.

Anyone who’s been shown how can bash the name of a case into a search box on a database – there’s no magic in that. But, I think that the student who can work with the online databases and the hardcopy sources is onto something good.  For any student with designs on practising as a barrister or solicitor, the primary sources will be the tools of your trade. And, just because you are lucky enough to go to a university with every legal search engine under the sun, that might not necessarily be the case when you get into chambers or a firm.

Hardcopy and online resources can and should sit in harmony with each other. But, if you can’t use the former you’re no better than a chef who can only drive a microwave.

This all sounds a bit preachy, I know. There is always a place on a law degree for textbooks, casebooks and online summaries and abstracts. But there is also a place, on a law degree, for the law itself. So, if you don’t know your ‘WLR’ from your ‘All ER’, or your ‘AC’ from your ‘Cr App R’, get into the library and sort it out. Your studies, I can guarantee, will be all the better for it.

If you think a more up-to-date copy of Learning the Law would come in handy, you can find it here.

Filed under: Books, Legal education, Shorter pieces

About the Author

Posted by

I am a law reporter employed by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England & Wales. I write law reports for the Official Law Reports, the Weekly Law Reports and the Public and Third Sector Reports. I also write on a freelance basis for the Road Traffic Reports and the Times Reports.


  1. Tony Frodsham

    Couldn’t agree more. Wise words which I will use on my return to my legal studies.

  2. You’re right about using books as well as online sources, and about “first hand” sources of law.

    One problem with internet searches even on the paid-for databases is that (unless it’s just me) many of us aren’t good enough at using them to do any more than a general trawl sort of search – so you can be faced with big, unordered lists of cases that simply include a keyword. That I think can tend to reinforce the idea that law is just a whole load of random cases that you can’t impose any order on. Not good for people developing as lawyers. I think it really helps to be able to use case citators to refer you from one judgment to related judgments in a more organised way.

    Another problem with BAILII (wonderful as it is, and I really think it is wonderful) is that looking at it all the time and seeing the latest case quickly can encourage an obsession with the latest case. That’s another habit that I think is bad to get into. Journals and talks tend to focus on recent cases, and psychologically there’s a tendency to see each new one as exciting and a “landmark”, which I think can be reinforced by seeing every new judgment nearly instantly. I think it’s important to be able to resist this a bit, and realise that most of these hot new cases will soon be forgotten without leaving much if any mark. Knowing about the pace and selectivity of proper law reports helps, I think.

    By the way, I also think being in a law library just helps you get into the habit of wandering around law in your mind, and realising for instance that subjects like shipping law exist.

    Using the legal sources themselves is vital. The more I teach law in fact, the more convinced I am that learning about “sources of law”, which tends to be something we do quickly, is very important and ought to be reinforced all the time. It’s not just about cases, either. I’m often amazed that students avoid looking at legislation. That may again be to do with books vs. the web to some extent, because at the moment legislation on the web just is not as user-friendly as legislation on the page. Its only advantage (though it’s a real one I admit) is if it’s kept up to date.

    So yes: the more time lawyers can spend looking at legislation and cases rather than textbooks (good as they are) the better. By the way, taking an important case from the past and really studying it (for an hour or two) can be a real journey of discovery in an area of law. My experience of doing that is that it makes you realise lawyers in the past were just as sophisticated as we are, and that legal history isn’t just a straight line from the fusty stupidity of the past to our own great cleverness.

    Finally, Glanville Williams, who I originally read in about 1991. It’s definitely worth reading, and I’d recommend using an older edition in fact. I’m sure the new one’s good but we do tend to rub out the legal past very quickly. I think actually being able to understand something of the way legal life looked and felt in the 50s or 60s (I can’t remember when the first edition was) can be really helpful to people getting into law now.

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