'Rowing men of limited intellect'

July 26, 2002

Law is now the most popular subject studied at UK universities, but as Gary Slapper points out, it wasn't always held in high esteem...

This year there were 76,617 applications to study law at university, making it the most popular field of undergraduate study. It has come a long way over the past century, in terms of popularity and in course content. In 1909, there were 109 university teachers of law in Britain; today there are more than 2,500. Academic legal literature has expanded during the same time from something that could have been fitted onto a few shelves to something that would need a large building to house it. In 1960, there were 3,000 law students in the UK; today there are more than 45,000.

Until the 1970s, only people from a legal background participated in academic legal education. Now it is common for social scientists, linguists, information and communications technologists, clinicians and many others to take part. This means the academic development of law has become something that should be a matter of interest for people from across the academic community and beyond. It is difficult to overstate the importance of law in the closely integrated 21st-century world.

It was all so different in 1758, when Sir William Blackstone, arguably the first great English academic lawyer, tried, as holder of the Vinerian chair at Oxford, to establish English law as a distinct subject. Canon and Roman law had been taught at the universities for centuries, but courses on English law did not exist. In the event, it was not until 1826 that University College London established the first degree in English law. The first graduating class of three was in 1839. In his history of UCL, published in 1929, H. Hale Bellot notes that the new great school of law aspired to be a place where "academic studies would be invigorated by contact with legal practice, and legal practice would benefit by the scientific analysis of its tacit assumptions", a point that resonates strongly in current debate about how law schools should operate. It is ironic that today some legal academics who oppose such cross-fertilisation believe that the older law schools were, from their geneses, ill-disposed towards such cross-fertilisation.

The academic quality of law teaching developed slowly. The title of A. V. Dicey's inaugural lecture, delivered at All Souls College, Oxford, on April 21 1883 was "Can English Law Be Taught at the Universities?". If eminent counsel were asked this question, he said, "they would reply with unanimity and without hesitation, that English law must be learned and cannot be taught, and that the only places where it can be learned are the law courts or chambers".

Even when English law was established at several British universities, it was not held in high esteem by academics from other faculties. As A. W. B. Simpson (a law professor at Oxford, Kent and now Michigan University) drily observed: "The law school was treated as the appropriate home for rowing men of limited intellect." The discipline of law was not seen as presenting an especially difficult challenge. In 1970, six out of ten solicitors were not graduates, and most judges had read not law but classics or history.

Undeterred, Dicey identified certain merits in legal scholarship. Students at university could and should be "taught to regard law as a whole and to consider the relation of one part of English law to another", something impossible in the throes of daily legal practice. University education could also provide "what from the nature of things can never be learnt in chambers - the habit of analysing and defining legal conceptions".

The history of the expansion of legal education since then has been partly attributable to changing social environmental pressures and the growing social recognition of the significance of law. Society today is highly juridified with thousands of occupations and lifestyles dealing directly and indirectly with law and being affected by it to a historically unprecedented extent.

With the growth of e-learning, the expansion of legal study is likely to continue apace. Traditionally, legal study has required access to expansive and expensive law libraries. That required a great deal of on-campus study and therefore excluded many people who were enthusiastic about legal scholarship but unable to live on campus or attend night school twice a week. Today, institutions can bring the law library to people's homes. This, supplemented with interactive teaching materials and regular contact with a personal law tutor, is welcoming into the legal educational world a great many law students who would not otherwise be engaged in legal study. As knowledge becomes common and cheap, the pressure is on those who purport to teach: become inspiring or become extinct.

Gary Slapper is professor of law and director of the law programme at the Open University.

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