From Shakespeare to The Very Hungry Caterpillar: Why an English Degree is Good Preparation for a Career in Law
7th February 2019
Studying English? Worried you're now irreparably unemployable? Have no fear. Studying English gives you a (maybe unexpectedly) broad range of skills that law firms like Shearman & Sterling seriously value. Here are five quick examples to remember next time your "more employable" Law student friend denigrates the value of Shakespeare to your career.
1. Reading, or “Not getting scared of big words”
One of the tasks that lawyers are often faced with is decoding the meaning of complex legislation or documents, and explaining to the client the implications of the legislation or a clause. Fairly straightforward, correct? No. Very early on in my training contract, I was faced with The Document: block text, no subheadings, no full stops, for pages and pages.
To my surprise, I found that in tackling that beauteous drafting I did not look back to my LPC days but rather drew from my experience studying English.
During my degree I studied texts ranging from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in middle English to the chapter-long single-sentence monologue in Ulysses and a post-modern poem consisting of the word “bee” repeated in strategic locations across the page.
English students have been trained to make sense of difficult writing, which proves very helpful when trying to extract meaning from tricky clauses.
2. Thinking on your feet
There will be a glorious moment at some stage in your training contract when a client will realise that there is a phone number beneath your email signature, and the phone will ring. It is possible that you may know the answer with 100% accuracy. It is not, however, very likely. In one such circumstance I found myself drawing on my English experience once again.
As an English student, you may think you know where a conversation is going when a seminar or tutorial starts. Inevitably the conversation will go off on a tangent and will end with the supervisor turning to you, smiling and asking “What do you think about the politics of gender identity in the Very Hungry Caterpillar?”
In answering such questions, English students have learned to think on their feet, using the information they have previously compiled to express a reasoned argument. This readiness to use critical thinking and respond to problems on a moment’s notice is an invaluable skill for a lawyer.
3. Expressing yourself (simply)
A lawyer needs to be able to explain complex legal concepts in a clear and succinct manner. Even as a trainee, you will often need to conduct research for a client or explain what the effect is of a proposed amendment to a clause.
During the first year of my degree, my weekly essays tended towards the flowery.
In my first essay I remember combining several variations of hereupon, thereunder and notwithstanding, peppering a good number of latin words around and non-ironically addressing myself as “one”.
My supervisors were not pleased.
With every essay I learned to reduce my sentences to the bare minimum, making my point come across a lot clearer. This is a skill that lawyers use both in terms of drafting as well as in conducting themselves around clients in general.
4. Managing your time
Being a trainee in a firm like Shearman & Sterling means that from a very early stage you are given a lot of responsibility. While of course there is guidance and always someone you can turn to, I found that when I was assigned a task or responsibility, my supervisor did not constantly check on my progress along the way and I was largely responsible for ensuring the end product was ready on time.
My English degree had prepared me very well for this type of responsibility.
While the lack of structure of an English degree is often mocked by other disciplines with more lectures and seminars scheduled in, that lack of structure is in fact very useful.
As an English student, I had various long-term deadlines but little monitoring of the progress in the meantime.
This forced me to become responsible; I learned how to set deadlines for myself, go to the library even on days when I did not feel motivated at all and in any event take ownership of my work ethic (or lack thereof).
As a trainee and as a lawyer, managing your time and ensuring deliverables are ready on time is a very large and important part of the service we offer to the client.
5. TMI (Too Much Information)
One of the first tasks I was assigned as a trainee was a marketing research task on satellites.
I realised very quickly that there is quite a lot of information out there on satellites. Tempting as it was to write a diatribe on 'Satellite: To Infinity and Beyond', this would not have been useful to the partner who had limited time to run through my report (possibly just flicking through it on their work phone).
I had to instead ask the right questions, understand the needs of the recipient of my report and narrow down the focus of the research in order to produce something useful.
This is a skill I learned during my English degree. It will be a shock to nobody that there is a fair bit of scholarly work done on Shakespeare. Therefore when as an English student you are tasked with choosing any topic to write on Shakespeare, you soon realise that deciding on a narrow focus and defined scope of work is crucial to producing a successful paper.
The ability to understand what research will be required and keep a report easily digestible is a key skill for a trainee solicitor as well as a lawyer.
By Chrisangelina Lo & Edd Rarity