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Studying law ain’t what it used to be (and that’s okay)

Books on a shelf

Luckily for students today, much has changed in law schools over the past few decades. I spoke with retired barrister John Amor-Smith about what it was like to study law in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Lecturers, it seems, have always had their quirks.

“Teaching in lectures was generally of a good standard, however some subjects were not taught to their entirety. I had a criminal law lecturer who read from the 300-page textbook word for word and stopped regularly to explain at length the details of each case. Although this detail was welcomed, by the end of the semester we were only up to page 76! I realised early on that this would be the case and took it on to teach myself ¾ of the subject, ending up with the equivalent of a HD”, says Amor-Smith.

“Then I had a lecturer in contracts who was the extreme opposite. This man would lecture each night without referring to the textbook, but would cover the lot and did so in order of what was written in the book, including each footnote! One night he came to the lecture and was nearly in tears upon the realization that he had overlooked a footnote in the previous lecture. Very apologetically he spent 10 minutes going through the case faultlessly citing the judgment.”

Although our subject assessments are usually a combination of assignments and an open book exam, Amor-Smith says that his exams could be likened to a memory test as they were mostly closed book and accounted for 100% of a student’s mark. Failure rates in subjects were probably higher and may have resulted in fewer students being admitted as a lawyer. Those who failed a subject three times were prohibited from ever practicing law and only about one quarter of a class who started would finish the degree.

One thing that has made studying easier is technology. Amor-Smith recalls that research was often an arduous task. “When I was studying, students spent hours researching at the library and out of books! Well, that is if there were any readable books left. Lecturers would recommend certain pages to be read from reserved books in the library. This was made nearly impossible most of the time, as bloodthirsty law students would tear highly relevant pages out of these books to gain an often unfair advantage over their fellow students.” Where would we all be now without online databases and the convenience of the ‘Control F’ button?

Studying law in the past may have had its disadvantages, however in order to perform well in law school Amor-Smith adds that not much has changed. “Whether you sink or swim still depends on the quantity and quality of your study through the semester. For those of you who have not read a case yet, do it, you may learn a thing or two!”

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