Why would it require a long degree to master law? I.e. to go through a degree for it in order to be qualified to practice it?

I perceive that interpreting what has happened is usually trivial direct observation. What may not be trivial is as to how to weight different damages in order to infer how "serious" something is. OTOH, since it described in law, then it should simply be some simple summing based on what "well-formulated" criteria is met.

So what exactly makes this process such that it requires an university degree?

Or perhaps the idea is similar to e.g. social workers? That the degree does not in essence provide means (such as it does for an electrical engineer, whose degree is also an accrediation that he/she should not mess up designs and kill people), but it's more like a guarantee that a person has "gone through enough thinking around a subject, as to be 'educated' to not fall to naive mistakes (such as not being able to respect psychology of children)". Or like a statistician is educated as to not fall into naive errors in interpretation.

  • What exactly do you mean to "master" law, and who says that a university degree is required for it?
    – Greendrake
    Sep 12 at 15:02
  • Do you mean a JD degree in the US, or an undergraduate major in e.g. Spain?
    – user6726
    Sep 12 at 15:02
  • @user6726 Whatever degree is offered as an entrance to the law profession. In some countries it's such degree is also required for some positions.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 13 at 7:14

I have seen judges' decisions where I as an amateur just read it and have no idea whether this is good or bad for the plaintiff or defendent. I'm sure I can write software code that a judge doesn't understand :-) so I don't feel bad about it. (I've seen other decisions that were easy to understand, so it's not always the same).

These years get you to a state where you read the same decision, and it is all clear and immediately obvious to you. Because you can read legalese, not just English. You know what each word means in a legal context, not in everyday English. And you know the background of every sentence. Getting to this point is hard work.

And it's not common sense, you need to know the laws. So recently we all found out that in Minneapolis, if someone dies as the result of a felony, that's automatically 2nd degree murder. Even if there was no intent to kill. Which is what happened to George Floyd. That's not common sense, that's the law in Minneapolis. Another state, or another country, could have different laws, and it wouldn't be murder, or third degree murder, or first degree murder. "Intuitive, everyday reasoning" couldn't get you to the point that there was a murder. You have to know the law in question.

  • Well in this case intuition could e.g. suggest that it's odd that laws are different, if people are not that heterogenous.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 12 at 16:05
  • @mavavilj, having seen laws from different countries, who have the same sense of fairness and what is good and what is bad, I have seen situations where individual laws are quite different but a combination of laws has the same total effect - except in rare exceptions.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 12 at 16:08

Starting with the obvious, the legal profession is regulated in most jurisdictions and having a law degree, or something that ends up being roughly equivalent to one, is usually a requirement for qualification.

So, if we take "mastering law" to mean that you want to be able to practice it e.g. by representing someone in any courtroom then having a law degree (or equivalent) may be a necessary step.

If instead you simply mean that you want to be an expert, then having "intuitive, everyday reasoning" is not enough. You can't just reason your way out of every legal situation unless you have already learned the necessary background information and skills. That background information typically involves a solid foundation in the main points of law within "core" topics such as contract, tort, land, trusts, criminal, and constitutional and administrative law, as well as the general principles of how the legal system works.

Without that, how are you going to respond when a client, opponent, or judge, asks you what the legal position is or challenges an argument you've made? Are you going to pull out a book and spend a few hours looking up the answer before responding? An expert already knows the answer for some reasonably common subset of the law, or knows where (i.e. what statute or case) and how to look it up very quickly.

I would also challenge the notion that law is always "intuitive, everyday reasoning". Legislation can be complex and unwieldy, judicial decisions can seem counter-intuitive and strange (or rarely, downright incorrect but still good law), and outcomes can depend on subtle factors which may not be at all obvious to an untrained person. Indeed this is a common problem when discussing a legal point with a layperson - their idea of what seems to make sense is often the opposite of what the law says.

Aside from knowledge of the law itself, being succesful also relies on other skills. You need to have a decent grasp of the language to be able to come up with persuasive interpretations which favour your argument, or to make sense of other interpretations. If you are going to appear in court, you need to have good oral commnunication skills and be able to speak cogently. These are all things that would traditionally be learned and practice in law school.

Note that none of this means that you need to have a law degree per se, but it does mean that if you don't then you will need to acquire most of the same knowledge and skills in some other way.

Response to comment

You've asked for an example of where the law can be counter-intuitive.

In contract law, one of the elements for a binding contract is agreement. This consists of an offer made by one party which is accepted by another. Under the general rule, both the offer and the acceptance must be communicated to the other party to be valid. An offer can be retracted before it is accepted. However, in as well as other jurisdictions, an exception exists known as the postal rule (Adams v Lindsell (1818) 1 B & Ald 681). This states that if the offeree posts their acceptance to the offeror then it is valid as soon as it is correctly posted, not when it is received. This can result in some counter-intuitive situations. For example, consider the following chronology of events:

  1. A makes an offer to B.
  2. A sends a withdrawal of the offer to B by post.
  3. B sends an acceptance to A by post.
  4. B receives the withdrawal.
  5. A receives the acceptance.

If the situation were intuitive, we would have a single rule that would apply to any given action. Regardless of whether an action is effective when posted or received, there would be no agreement because the withdrawal came first either way. But because the postal rule applies only to acceptance, we have a valid agreement which was formed at step 3.

Other strange situations are possible. For example, B could post a rejection of A's offer on Monday and accept it by telephone on Tuesday before the letter arrives. A valid agreement is formed because the postal rule does not apply to rejections.

Potentially worse, Scottish precedent exists (Dunmore v Alexander (1830) 9 Shaw 190) to support the idea that there is an exception to the exception. B can post an acceptance to A (which under the postal rule is instantly binding), but then retract the acceptance via a faster method. If the retraction arrives first, then the acceptance is no longer valid. Logically this makes no sense - if acceptance took place instantly then at that moment in time there was a binding contract. It is also potentially open to abuse: e.g. you could accept by post a contract to purchase shares and then decide whether or not to retract the acceptance based on what the share price does before the letter arrives.

The postal rule is not something which would be intuitive to someone who hasn't already learned it. Yet, if you do know about the rule, it is easy to avoid it by specifying in the offer that acceptance must be received to be valid (Household Fire Insurance v Grant (1879), Holwell Securities v Hughes [1974] 1 WLR 155).

  • Why do you assume that to "master" law means to be a professional lawyer?
    – Greendrake
    Sep 12 at 15:38
  • 2
    @Greendrake I didn't. I started one parargaph with that premise, and the next paragraph with a different one, in order to consider both possibilities.
    – JBentley
    Sep 12 at 15:39
  • @Greendrake The main purpose for which a law degree is thought to be "required" is to practice law. The majority of people who go to law school and earn a law degree do so intending to practice law. So when the OP asks why a law degree should be required, it is reasonable to conclude that the OP means required in order to practice law. But the answer by JBentley did not in fact make that assumption. Sep 12 at 15:43
  • Can you give examples of these counter-intuitive outcomes or subtle factors?
    – mavavilj
    Sep 12 at 16:01
  • "Subtle factors" - I think there was a case where a comma in a contract cost someone over ten million dollars. That comma changed the meaning of a contract term just enough. Google for "comma costs millions".
    – gnasher729
    Sep 12 at 16:03

It doesn’t

The exact durations vary but to qualify for a LLB requires about the same amount of time as other specialist degrees like engineering, architecture and medicine.

You are right that what lawyers do is trivial. But so is what engineers, architects and doctors do. You just have to know how and that’s how long it takes to learn it.

  • No I don't find that (but I'm not expert) law is like interpreting statistical models or something, where you need to be versed about the ways models manipulate information. And being sloppy can lead to gross differences in interpretation.
    – mavavilj
    Sep 13 at 7:10

One needs a comprehensive view of legal issues that could arise in fact patterns in the legal system to spot the potential legal issues and know to research them further, and evaluate their strength. Many are non-obvious.

The U.S. practice of requiring an undergraduate degree in any field prior to beginning a law degree, is simply a means of weeding out less academically able student and insuring that new lawyers are sufficient mature.

There are some subfields of law that are relatively self-contained (e.g. criminal law, immigration, child custody and support and paternity) and could be taught in less time, but neither the U.K. nor the U.S. trains a significant number of specialist only professionals in the manner that the health professions due. Both jurisdictions train generalists even though their practice may end up being specialized later on.

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