Series: Letters from a Law Student No.2 – The Most Useful Introductory Law Books
As the discipline of Law is notorious for requiring a large volume and breadth of reading, it can be daunting knowing where to start before you embark on your legal journey. This article aims to try and help by giving a concise guide to the books I have found most useful, intelligible and entertaining.
For easier navigation to find the book that will be of most use to you, the article will be broken down into four sections:
1) Introductory Books for Law
2) Entertaining Books Surrounding the Law
3) Law Books Dealing with Contemporary Issues
Introductory Books for Law
Of the myriad of introductory books, there are three I found most useful in terms of their accessibility to a layperson, such as myself:
· About Law – Tony Honore.
· Letters to a Law Student – Nicholas J. McBride
· Learning the Law – Glanville Williams
About Law – Tony Honore
The shortest of the three books, which does not in any way discredit its usefulness, is excellent to start with. Providing readers with a brief history of the evolution of the Law, from the Code of Hammurabi to Justinian’s Code - attempting to codify all Law in the Roman empire - the book is extremely useful in detailing the background to the laws that govern us today. Moreover, by explaining the basic principles that underlie the major facets of the law – i.e. Criminal, Tort, Contract law etc – this book helps readers understand the reasoning behind the way legislators and lawyers think.
Letters to a Law Student – Nicholas J.McBride
The most famous of the three books and probably deservedly so, Letters to a Law Student is a quintessential read for all potential Law students. Written in a question and response style, McBride responds honestly to a series of letters from a student questioning whether they should study Law at University. Not only providing a basic knowledge of the Law, McBride’s letters in response deliver a clear guidance on what can be expected at University when studying Law, and whether the Law is the right subject for you. Filled with passion, McBride defends the importance of studying Law as a pure subject when considering pursuing a legal career a career, against those who advocate a Law conversion course.
The naming of this article series takes inspiration from the title of McBrides book, demonstrating its profound influence on me.
Learning the Law – Glanville Williams
‘Learning the Law’ is a vital read for students who want to understand the Law and its practical involvement in wider society. Williams clearly explains the legal process from the Magistrate’s Court to the Supreme Court of Justice, and, with the aid of pictures and diagrams, helpfully distinguishes the differences between the function of Common Law Courts in England and most European Courts, having to implement a constitution. Probably going into the most depth, ‘Learning the Law’ covers all bases in terms of providing a holistic insight into the law. An engaging book that I would highly recommend.
Entertaining Books Surrounding the Law
It is no secret that Law books can be dry and tedious reads. However, there are many legal reads that I have found not only to be useful and enlightening, but also entertaining. These are the five most enjoyable and gripping legal books I have read allowing you to productively take a break from pure law books:
· Landmarks in the law – Lord Denning
· Under The Wigg – William Clegg
· To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
· Jeremy Hutchinsons Case Histories
Landmarks in the Law – Lord Denning
Written by one of the most esteemed Judges of the 21st Century, Lord Denning’s ‘Landmarks in the Law’ takes its readers on a gripping history of some of the most important legal cases which have shaped Common Law as we know it today. Discussing areas such as ‘High Treason’, ‘Torture and Bribery’, ‘Freedom of the Press’ and ‘International Terrorism’, the book is an interesting and factually useful read. I would recommend it as a good starting point for understanding the evolving nature of English Common Law and its most significant moments.
Under the Wigg – William Clegg
William Clegg’s biographical account of some of his most interesting cases is a quick and gripping read, helpfully detailing his route to becoming a barrister and then QC. Clegg, or at least his ghost writer, magnificently shines a light onto what life as a barrister is like; from how to prepare for a case, to skilfully perform in court, to what life in chambers is like. As an insight into the work of a top barrister, this is a must read.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
Like ‘Letters to a Law Student’, Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is an essential read for all future law students. An all-time classic.
Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories
Not too dissimilar to ‘Under the Wigg’, ‘Jeremy Hutchinsons Case Histories’ is an enthralling read citing all the major cases Hutchinson advocated on. Starting with the trial of George Blake, an MI5 agent turned Soviet spy during the Cold War, the book is difficult to put down. Personally, I feel lucky to have started my legal reading with this book as Hutchinson became an inspiration to me; a man that engenders what a barrister should be.
Law Books dealing with Contemporary Issues
In order to engage with the Law more fully, I have also found it useful to brush up on some of its contemporary issues, especially helpful when it comes to assimilating arguments for entrance exam essays i.e. the LNAT or CLT essays. Other than reading the newspaper, which must be treated with caution as they have been known to skew the reality of legal cases in order to sell more issues, these books, written by lawyers and academics, provide a useful basis in understanding current legal issues:
· The Secret Barrister saga – Fake Law + Stories of the Law and how it is broken.
· Five ideas to fight for – Anthony Lester
· The Rule of Law – Tom Bingham
· Just Law – Helena Kennedy
· Trials of the State – Jonathan Sumption
The Secret Barrister Saga
The first of the Secret Barrister books neatly depicts how the Law in the UK is broken, highlighting issues within the Magistrate’s Court such as the lack of diversity on the Bench and its implications, to the problem with a deflating legal aid budget and the consequences on people's access to justice. It’s sequel – ‘Fake Law’ – aims to debunk legal fallacies often created by the media, ranging from ‘Self-Defence’ and ‘Protecting Your Home’ to whether the UK is the ‘whiplash capital of Europe’. Although a fantastic book covering all the major myths involving the law, the second book is not as much as a page turner as the first and may be one to pick up every-so-often. However, it will certainly give you more in-depth arguments for your essays.
Five Ideas to Fight for – Anthony Lester
Fighting for ‘human rights’, ‘equality’, ‘free speech’, ‘privacy’ and ‘The Rule of Law’, Lester makes compelling arguments for each, of which I would strongly urge all potential Law students to recognise before sitting entrance exams. Questions surrounding the aforementioned topics often arise, and its useful to have strong arguments for them; Lester will provide you with these.
The Rule of Law – Tom Bingham
Written by another renowned Judge, this book is again an essential read for all potential Law students as it provides a good introduction to the Rule of Law, or at least A.V Dicey’s interpretation of it. Looking at the evolution of the Rule of Law and its modern application, I would highly suggest reading this book to anyone who wants to clearly understand the principles on which our Law is based.
Just Law – Helena Kennedy
If ‘The Secret Barrister’ doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps ‘Just Law’ will. Once again examining contemporary legal issues we should all know about, Kennedy provides a passionate and thought-provoking analysis on each. Most noticeably to me is her ability to make a nuanced and lucid argument on tricky issues such as rape cases, making reference to the grey areas of the law such as different perspectives on what amounts to consent between the defendant and plaintiff. Furthermore, her remark to ‘treat as equals those who are not equals creates further inequality’ is a quote that has had a profound impact on me. A fantastic, although slightly challenging, read.
Trials of the State – Jonathan Sumption
Some claim Sumption to be the brightest man in the whole of the United Kingdom, and this is possibly proved to be the case in his short book ‘Trials of the State’, which is based upon the content of his ‘Reith Lectures’ for the BBC. Arguing on the side of Politics, Sumption points to the legal sectors over-involvement in affairs which would seem wholly political, galvanised as a result of the deficit of effective politicians. An eye-opening and thought provoking read, one which can again bolster any potential Law students’ arguments for entrance exams or interviews.
Jurisprudence, the theory of Law, is an area of particular interest to me. However, I must admit that my extent of understanding this facet of the Law is somewhat sketchy due to its complexity, and the fact I have never been given a basic introduction to it. Nevertheless, Jurisprudence is a subject filled with academic debate, and to get involved is fun. To gain a basic introduction I would read Nicholas McBride’s book: ‘The Great Debates in Jurisprudence’, which does an excellent job in covering and explaining the main pieces of literature within Jurisprudence to date, and the main debates.