The Legal Hunger Games

Second year of law school paved the way for a shift in my ideological view of both studying law academically and what it would be like to work in practice. This did not occur as a result of being subject to a year’s worth of EU law. Instead, it  actually stemmed from an article I stumbled across whilst studying jurisprudence (some would argue worse than EU).

When I say I had a change in view, well actually my expectations in first year were somewhat ambiguous.  My passion for law stemmed from good A-level results rather than a life long desire to enter the legal profession. That being said I was as intrigued and excited as any other first year starting out on what could be a major definitive element of their future.  Duncan Kennedy’s 1982 article Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy managed to encapsulate thoughts that were present in my mind yet I could not quite fathom.


The competitive nature surrounding the academic study of law is thrust upon you consistently throughout university. As you progress into second, third and fourth year the ever looming cloud that is the process of gaining a training contract gets bigger and bigger. The news of a fellow student gaining a training contract passes through the law library quicker than a forest fire. Are students happy for them? Jealous? Both?  I found myself feeling the same emotions, but why?

Duncan Kennedy suggests law schools generate a system of rank ordering between students based on grades and examination performance. This system is essential on an individual level in order to assess how well you are progressing. This is not the issue; rather the competitive edge surrounding this system is the issue. It differentiates students whilst stoking the fire of competitiveness. In a way this can be viewed as essential, the legal world after university is extremely competitive. It’s competitive when finding a job. It’s competitive finding clients. It’s competitive in providing the best legal advice andworking for the best firm.

Maybe a competitive learning environment is essential to produce the best lawyers. H owever it wasn’t something I believed to be as prominent as it is. Does this competitive environment prepare those at the lower end of the scale to settle for a future in a legal career dependant on those higher up in the hierarchy? Duncan Kennedy states that if students are willing to accept dependency they are accepting a role which suggests ‘it is more prudent to kiss the lash than to strike out on your own’.

Competitiveness is all well and good when you’re trying to acquire something; it gives you a fighting edge to acquire the best possible outcome. It can be defined as defeating or establishing superiority over others. This is quite an interesting aspect when you think about it, brilliant for achieving your personal goals, but establishing superiority over others does not prepare students or aid a student in developing his team working skills, or social skills for that matter. Skills that are predominantly important in many paths of life as well as the legal profession. This I see as an issue with the academic approach to studying law. However, competitiveness is a natural characteristic of mine.  Does this render my agreement with Duncan Kennedy invalid? Hopefully not. Eliminating competiveness from a learning environment would be more detrimental than advantageous, therefore a balance must be struck.

Clinical legal education: competitiveness through a new prism

Taking an active part in clinical legal education shifted my views on studying law once again. The practical approach to studying law through this method is the main reason why I chose to study at Northumbria University.  It manages to strike a balance between the significance of competiveness and the necessity of team work, both essential factors in any profession. You enter the Student Law Office with limited experience and you leave having learned some invaluable lessons.

The competitiveness stems from the knowledge that throughout the whole year you are being individually assessed. Hearing these words in your first firm meeting reiterate the need for the competitive shield law students carry around with them. But as the year progresses and you begin to work with your partner you slowly start to realise that the most effective way to achieve the most efficient work for your client is by working together. All of a sudden you’re communicating with others – supervisors, administrators and fellow students   – and you see how developing these skills are essential to achieving future success.

Competitiveness now begins to creep back into the picture but this time the individualistic nature of it has been replaced with a common notion. The competitiveness is now focussed on achieving the best possible outcome for your client rather than  achieving the best possible outcome for yourself. In a sense the nature of competition has been shifted. There isn’t a general feeling that the firms in the Student Law Office are trying to compete with each other. Rather, they are all working towards the same goal: providing a professional service to their clients. Clinical legal education offers an approach to learning which the academic approach cannot, and this I believe is a step forward in the study of law.

There is no doubt competitiveness is an essential characteristic and there is no way of avoiding it in the life of academic study but its application can be detrimental when it overrides other important characteristics. In my opinion it is the very nature of team work which gives those seeking it a competitive advantage.

This blog post was written by Matt Boxshall. Matt is currently an M Law student at Northumbria University and working in a business and commercial firm in the Student Law Office. Whilst studying at Northumbria he has developed an interest in the way law is taught and the effects it has on students. On graduation he hopes to travel before securing a training contract which will allow him to further develop his interests in business and international law.

Matt B