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Studying History? You Should Consider a Career in Law

As a history student you are often the butt of the employability jokes. I remember there were lots of memes (people still use memes, right?) when I was at university implying history graduates never got jobs (see below):

However the perception that history is not an employable degree is just wrong. Law is a common career for history graduates. Working in a corporate law firm quickly teaches you that many of the skills you have subtly (often imperceptibly) developed during your degree are valuable. We’re here to tell you what they are!

1. Research – Selection of sources

Research is probably the most obvious of these skills, and for good reason. As a history student I spent the majority of my three years at university in the library trying to find a snippet of evidence that would support or disprove my line of argument.

More often than not I would find myself having to sift through a pile of source material for a tiny, precise piece of information.

For every answer that you are looking for there are hundreds of places to begin looking. Being able to break down a question into smaller, bite-sized pieces in order to narrow your search from the start is a skill that I learnt quickly and one that I have used many times since starting at Shearman & Sterling.

Similar to trying to find a piece of evidence for a history essay, I have had to undertake research tasks as a corporate law trainee.

The answer that I am looking for could come from an array of different places. Sometimes finding the answer has been straightforward. You select the correct source and the precise fact or legal authority you have been asked to find is there. It’s a great feeling! But this is not always the case.

On other occasions I have had to narrow down my search by reading legal journals and commentary.

In the same way you mobilise secondary materials to streamline your research as a history student, this requires clear, logical thinking to direct you, as quickly as possible, towards the precise piece of primary material you need. You have to be able to dismiss irrelevant sources and select those most appropriate for the task at hand.

2. Research – Online

Being able to use online research tools is another useful skill to have as a trainee corporate lawyer.

This skill has been particularly helpful when researching very complex, precise matters.

The most complex research task that I have been given thus far has been to try and find whether “summarily” has been defined under English law within a contractual context. For example, when a contract allows for an employee to summarily terminate their employment contract.

This task was tricky because “summarily” has been defined in English law in the context of a summary judgment in a legal case, but not in the context of contract law. To definitively conclude this I had to use my online research skills. I had to ensure that in my research I was separating the two definitions and filtering out what was irrelevant to my particular search.

3. Research – Citing your sources!

Yes, I’m afraid keeping track of your source materials is not something you can just forget after handing in your dissertation!

The methodical approach to research you have learnt through your history degree will prove valuable as a corporate lawyer.

It is a very useful skill and it has saved me a lot of time on my research tasks since I started at Shearman & Sterling. Keeping track of where you have read particular pieces of information is important for three reasons:

1. As a lawyer you need to be able to verify the reason you are giving a particular piece of advice, or a certain opinion.

2. If you have relied on a piece of legislation, or a particular case, to support your advice and that legislation, or case, gets updated or amended, you need to be aware of this so that you can alter your advice accordingly.

3. If any issues arise in the future concerning the advice that you gave then you are able to retrace your steps. This will help you understand where the problem may have arisen and increase the speed with which you can remedy the problem.

4. Attention to detail

As a history student you are constantly reminded of the importance of proofreading your work and having good attention to detail.

Working at Shearman & Sterling reinforces just how crucial these skills are.

The work of a lawyer is service-based and consequently clients expect that the service provided is of the highest quality.

Sending out a poorly drafted email with a spelling mistake in the subject name to a client does not reflect well. In the same way lots of spelling mistakes in an academic article would make you question the time and care a researcher has taken when constructing their historical argument, it will fundamentally devalue and undermine legal analysis.

Having good attention to detail is a skill that seems so simple, and yet is probably the main skill that you will be asked to draw upon as a trainee.

You will spend many days (and a few late nights) proofreading documents for associates and partners in your team. The better you are at noticing the mistakes and not making any yourself, the quicker and more efficient you will be.

This way, you will add greater value to your team (not to mention that you will be able to go home sooner). These skills are also essential when drafting legal documents. Spelling errors in legal documents can have disastrous consequences for your clients, especially if that spelling mistake leads to a disagreement and your client ends up going to court because of it.

5. Asking the right questions

My history tutors at university encouraged me to be inquisitive and ask lots of questions.

Being able to ask questions as a trainee lawyer is a good skill to have, being able to ask the correct questions is even better.

As a trainee you are expected to know very little, your role is to learn.

Asking questions helps you to do this and also shows that you are interested in what you are doing. It is, however, important to realise that whilst everyone has time for you, they are also busy with their own work.

Asking questions which you could have answered yourself is a waste of their time. Studying history teaches you to ask the correct type of question in order to extract the answer that you are looking for.

This is a very useful skill that you will be able to draw upon as a trainee at a corporate law firm.

6. Interpretation of complex concepts

Rigorous interpretation of source materials and dealing with large, tricky concepts is a fundamental part of completing a history degree.

Since starting my training contract it has surprised me how much room for interpretation there is in the law.

Being able to understand how different sentence structures and words can change meanings if used in particular ways or contexts is a crucial skill to have as a lawyer. Such skills are important for clients both for two reasons.

On one hand, failure to conceptualise how a phrase will be interpreted could result in a client being taken to court or in an agreement being read contrary to its original intention.

On the other, careful, lateral legislative interpretation can provide your clients with opportunities.

For example, financial institutions have to navigate a number of complex requirements.

We have to ensure that clients’ legal documents are drafted to minimise the burden of these requirements. We have to facilitate a nimble approach to existing regulation and maximise protection against contractual counterparties.

The ability therefore to grasp legal concepts and use this understanding to formulate a clear, structured interpretation of how they can operate in practice is therefore a very important skill for any corporate lawyer to develop. A history degree is an excellent foundation for this.

7. Reading lots!

The ability to read and digest vast quantities of information is another useful skill that I picked up and honed during my time as a history student.

Working in law there is a lot of information that you need to be able to internalise and understand in order to provide advice or carry out your role in a transaction.

The information may take the form of legislation, a new regulatory update, a trial bundle or a mass of documents to be read through as part of a due diligence process.

Whichever department you sit in you will always have a lot to read. Studying history at university gives you a lot of practice at this. Being able to read quickly whilst absorbing the information is an invaluable skill to have as a corporate lawyer.

8. But also reading smart…..

As a history student you don’t read entire books. Nor do you thoroughly read every page on the entire reading list. Or at least I hope you don’t.

If you do: please stop!

Instead you have to be selective with your reading to find the most useful evidence and arguments for the essay question at hand.

This expedites the essay production process and encourages you to think about the value of each source to your final product.

This is a very important skill to have as a corporate lawyer.

Lawyers bill by the hour and clients want to see value for money (hence value for time!). The ability to be selective with your reading, maximising your time spent on useful sources and getting to the root of a legal argument quickly are skills that will be valuable throughout your career as a corporate lawyer.

If you’re asked to find what the three fifty page judgments say about the concept of “reasonableness” in an hour you can’t read every word of them.

9. Teamwork

As part of my history degree we had to do several tasks with other students.

It is cliché to say, but any task that gives you practice at working as part of a team will give you skills that are imperative to have as a corporate lawyer.

Solicitors, more often than not, work in teams. These teams may range in size from a team of five to a team of over 100.

Being able to work with different types of people is important. You will not always be at university working with your friends. Being able to give instructions and also take instruction are two skills that all corporate lawyers use, whether you are a trainee or a partner.

As a trainee I am often instructed on what work I need to do, however, when it comes to pro bono work often trainees are given the lead and then you become the one instructing others.

Practicing these skills at university will put you in good stead before starting work at any law firm.

10. Public speaking

careers for history graduates

As a history student I found that I learnt to speak in public in two different forums: seminars and tutorials. Both develop your public speaking skills in different ways. Each is very useful when working as a corporate lawyer.

In a seminar you learn to present to a larger group.

You need to speak cogently and engagingly, otherwise you lose the attention of the attendees.

As a corporate lawyer the ability to present to a group tends to become more important as you become more senior; but it is still a great skill to have as a junior solicitor.

As a trainee I have found myself presenting at graduate recruitment events and even in front of clients!

In a tutorial you learn to speak coherently in a more intimate environment, even with just you and an academic. You will need to legitimise your view and respond convincingly when questioned on your stance.

This happens regularly in a law firm.

Associates or partners will give you a task and your answers will be examined and challenged to check they are valid and legally-grounded. You need to demonstrate that you have fully thought-through your answer, right down to its legal fundamentals. Your argument must hold together and your interpretation needs to be tight; as with any good history essay.


If you are a history graduate (or current student), I hope this blog has given you some idea of how the skills you have developed can be put to good use in the world of commercial law. In fact many trainees have studied history before turning their attention to legal careers. History is a versatile degree and if you are considering career options after graduation, you should definitely consider a career in law.

by Jess Brown & James Ballantyne