Why Study Law?
McGill’s Professor Rod Macdonald is one of Canada’s leading administrative law scholars and also a big thinker about the role and place of legal education. He gave a speech at the London School of Economics a few months ago, which he has now posted on SSRN. A taste:
Here is my first claim. Studying law is a powerful inquiry into inter-personal and
social relationships, into the complexities of people in interaction with each other.
Not just casual encounters, although many legal relationships are of this type. Not
just hierarchical impositions of power, although some legal relationships are like
this. Law is concerned with the institutions and processes through which human
beings fashion just relationships. The study of law demands understanding of
human beings as purposive, and of human institutions as means-ends complexes.
The student of law learns to be a wise counsellor on questions of institutional
design. Not a social engineer seeking to dictate human conduct, but an architect
of agency-promoting, facilitative social structures that are on offer to citizens and
Second, legal study is grounded. It proceeds from the particular to the general.
Legal learning is grounded in the practice of understanding and solving specific
problems that arise in everyday life. Abstract, theoretical knowledge is a canvass
on which students of law learn to paint particular proposals for addressing novel
situations beyond the contemplation of general rules. Law is concerned with the
conditions under which human freedom can be pursued within a series of offices,
roles, and rules. The law student acquires the discipline to ask not ‘what does the
law permit me to do?’ but rather to reflect on answering the question ‘what should
I do, all things considered?’
Third, legal study involves acquiring a range of capacities and skills for
mediating the experiences of the quotidian with the ideals of the transcendent. Law
graduates are dispersed into all sectors of society, both domestically and
internationally. Many do not practice the profession in its traditional forms. But
the goal of a well-conceived legal studies programme is that all graduates take with
them the everyday lessons of law and the lessons of everyday law. And they do so
with a clear understanding of what it means to be committed to the virtuous
deployment of their knowledge and expertise. Knowledge of the law enacted by
Parliaments and applied by courts is a small part of the endeavour. A law student
learns to traverse the terrain of law that is promulgated by international
organisations, and by the local chapter of the Red Cross society. And a student of
the law also learns to understand the internal law of multi-national corporations
like Reebok, the informal law of a neighbourhood, and the legal mêlée of the
University. Every setting demands attention to issues of legitimacy, due process,
and justice; how one engages with everyday law in quotidian sites is the litmus test
of legal virtue.
Fourth, studying law offers members of a community a powerful lens through
which they may view and judge themselves and their community. Law is not just a
thing. It is more than a practice. Law is a human accomplishment. Over time,
various dimensions of formal (or official) law and informal law come to express a
society’s values and convictions, as well as its prejudices and pathologies. Students
of law learn to act virtuously within the confines of legal practice. They learn to
frame arguments that bring scrutiny to accepted norms, accepted processes, and
accepted outcomes. But students of law learn to stand outside the law as well.
True engagement with law is inescapably self-reflexive and self-critical.
This content has been updated on June 11, 2014 at 09:48.