Any given law degree employs a mixture of lectures and seminars/tutorials to cover the necessary content. Lectures set out the framework of the topic: this is important to acknowledge for two reasons. First, it sets out boundaries of what you need to know, and perhaps more importantly, what you do not need to know. Secondly, the way a lecturer structures a topic reflects the key debates or themes that will be examined at the end of the year. Listen carefully to the ‘narrative’ of the lecture: what does the lecturer think about the topic? This provides a hidden argument which you could use, refine or rebut in your exams.
A common pitfall is to get too bogged down by the details on the lecture slides. A more effective way is to get a ‘big picture’ understanding of the topic from lectures before doing the seminars/tutorials readings.
Seminars/tutorial readings provide the necessary substance to solve a problem question or write an essay. They are therefore pivotal. Take some time to study the readings lists: what are the sources? What do the titles suggest? Take advantage of the questions accompanying the reading lists and find out what exactly what the pertinent information is.
To help you do this, bear two questions in mind:
1. What is the legal position(s) on this topic?
A legal position is never straightforward. It comes from different sources, such as a range of cases and statutes. Furthermore, it is often not definitive. It may appear as a test which produces different results depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, the answer is just not clear because an authority may be susceptible to different interpretations. Nonetheless, this question urges students to read actively in search for an ‘answer’. This is important because the legal position is invariably the subject matter of the academic debate. Students should welcome any difficulties in reaching the ‘answer’ as they offer potential critiques of the law as it stands on grounds of clarity, coherence or soundness.
2. What do lawyers think about this legal position?
Lawyers, understood in the broader sense, include judges, academics, practitioners and the Law Commission. A reading list includes different opinions so that students can appreciate the debate. The key is to be able to articulate the arguments and explain the nuances between them - even if they fall within the same camp. More importantly, however, students should form their opinions on the topic. Why is argument X better than Y? They may also advocate a different position. A substantiated, nuanced argument is the key to obtaining a first.
Independent reading is the primary method of delivering a law course. It is only after sifting through great volumes of information and ideas that students can appreciate the complexities and nuances of a legal subject matter. We hope this guide has provided some useful tips, general and specific, for students looking to excel in a law degree.