Studying law: in my words (Part 1 of 3)

This blog was contributed by Calvin Chong, a University of London Undergraduate Laws student who is based in Hong Kong, providing advice to students studying for their LLB. In it he discusses the methods he uses to balance his studies with a full-time job. Please note the views expressed are those of the author and publication on the Undergraduate Laws blog does not constitute an endorsement. This is the first of a series of three blog posts.

Calvin ChongWhat is my aim with this article?

This article aims to give you my experience of how to study law efficiently. It doesn’t matter how much time you are investing in your (part-time) law degree as a whole, or how you wish to apportion your time between subjects. It is about getting the best grade out of the time you are happy to invest. What you get from your studies, apart from the way you study, is how good you are generally at studying.

 

Should I attend a Teaching Centre to support my study of the Undergraduate Laws programme?

The short answer for me is yes. The study of law is itself a system of knowledge which can be difficult to grasp. Enrolling in a taught course rewards you with the ability to socialize with your fellow classmates and the possibility of forming a study group. Forming a study group helps a lot if you are not the most disciplined-type: a few people studying are much less likely to end up in playing mobile games.

Textbooksopen book

With the University of London you get a ‘module guide’. You should also get a textbook. That being said, it is not necessarily true that you need to own one. You can, for example, use electronic ones provided by the University of London. The textbook for criminal law by Professor William Wilson is one example that is available on Dawsons (which you can access with your University of London student account).

Some comments on textbooks:

Criminal law. The suggested text is the one by William Wilson. It is probably worth every minute reading — the questions and cases given in the text are very helpful in your preparation. Professor Wilson also wrote a book on the conceptual issues of criminal law (Wilson, Central issues in Criminal Theory, Hart Publishing, 2002). However if you are as determined as me in putting 10+ hours each week into criminal law, you would be well-advised to do both the Smith and Hogan monstrous text on Criminal law and the Criminal law textbook by Andrew Ashworth. The first book is complete in both theoretical treatise and case law (what criminal law is), whereas the one by Professor Ashworth focuses on criticizing the law and propose what is better (what criminal law ought to be).

Land law. The suggested text is the text by Professor Martin Dixon and is available on Dawsons. I used both this and the textbook Modern Land Law by the late Professor Mark Thompson (co-edited by Martin George). The textbook by Professor Dixon is very readable and the one by Professor Thompson is keen at pointing out legislative mishaps.

As you may see, I generally start with two textbooks that complement one another, one that describes the law, and another that criticizes the law.

Casebook and cases

There are probably hundreds of cases inside a typical reading list. The two questions here are, should I buy a case book, and if not, how many cases should I read?

For case books the bottom line is: it’s good to have but be prepared to go beyond it.

For reading lists, it is important to identify cases which are important enough that you need to read it through (for example those marked with 2 or 3 stars by Professor Dixon in the photo above). For the rest of the cases, it is probably enough to read the headnote or the case summary on Westlaw.

In my studies, I treat the rest of the case by looking up the Case Analysis in Westlaw. In Westlaw, a list of journal articles that cite the case is identified in the “Journal Article” section in the Case Analysis document.

Some classmates of mine laughed at me looking at ‘second hand information’ rather than the primary judgment and my response was that I don’t consider myself better at summarizing cases than academics. The case comments are often written by top academics: they are short and are typically more readable than the case itself.

What do I do in the academic year?

Apportioning your time is the most important task in studying part-time. If you want to spend the least amount of time but get the most out of it, give it your morning time. Sleep slightly earlier and wake slightly earlier. If your workday begins at 9 am, you can save the time between 7 and 9 am for studies. This way you will be using your most productive time for studying.

If you are registered at a Teaching Centre you should attend the regular lectures. These lectures provide you with the necessary background to understand the examination papers. If you did not enrol in a taught course, the equivalent would be to read through the textbook once, making sure that you understand what is written in the text. This is the second most time-consuming task in my study method. You should finish this by the end of December if you started in September (this allows about one month for a subject). In this step, you will also want to make notes, which you will reuse in the subsequent steps.

How do I start with a topic?

My view is that this should start ideally before the end of January. You should first go over your textbook and your notes. You should then expand upon it, and identify key areas which are controversial. After you have a solid grasp of the topic, you should then read a few key cases (about 10 of them per topic) cover to cover.

After reading key cases, the next step is to identify the current academic climate in the topic. With this, you will need to develop your skill in finding sources of information. It is helpful looking at articles that referred to the key cases identified above: you can search the articles that referred to a particular case using the ‘case summary’ function of Westlaw.

Secondly, you will want to see if whole chapters have been dedicated to the topic. There will be quite a large amount of reading that awaits you if you search it this way. The best way to identify which article is most beneficial is to identify leading scholars in the field.

If you have trouble identifying problem areas which require further readings, go no further than the Law Commission. If there are problems with a particular area, chances are that the Law Commission would be interested in reforming it

If you are lucky, you should be able to finish your free subjects by the end of April studying 20 hours a week. The next step would be to summarise your readings into at the very most 3–4 pages per topic. This will enable you to proceed to the next stage.

The next instalment of this series will target on time allocation nearer the examination period and best practice for using material from the University of London.

 

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