Why I Studied Law

Conor GeartyBy Professor Conor Gearty, FBA

I drifted into law because I was able to get into the course at university and didn’t want to do medicine, which was what others thought would suit me. Definitely not!

After a rocky start – I tried to switch from law to politics – I grew to like law as a discipline very much. It is quite a pedantic, careful field where rhetoric is not really approved of, and in which accuracy counts for a great deal. Its glory lies in its commitment to logical argument – sometimes that can hide politics of course (what is the starting point for your logic?) but which nevertheless drives the field – the cases, the statutes, the works of scholarship that you have to read. Law is a compelling combination of humanities and social sciences, with a dash of scientific logic thrown in.

Human Rights, Civil Liberties

My own work in law has been about the way the subject connects with society. As a result I have been especially interested in judges, and the art of judging. At one level judges have to appear to be above the fray of human life; at another they are invariably and inevitably immersed in the conflict, competing interests and ideological wars that make up our complex social reality.

British judges have changed a lot since I started studying law. Where once they were colonial-type figures protective of power while only seeming to be fair, now they are more liberal, more self-aware – more human.

The Being Human event on 19 November at the UK Supreme Court promises to be fascinating precisely because of the kind of perspective it is taking – encapsulated in its title ‘The Humanity of Judging’. It will be held in the Supreme Court’s dramatic new building, which is in itself enough of a reason to go. Judging draws more than many appreciate from the architectural space in which it takes place.

My interest in the politics of law has also (and inevitably) led me to human rights and civil liberties. There can be few more important challenges facing us today than how to work out what to do with digital technology and data, part a liberation in terms of what it allows us to achieve, but part tyrannical in what it requires of us in turn, namely the surrender of much (all?) of our personal privacy. The discussion of these issues taking place on 15 November at Senate House promises also to be immensely stimulating.

Teaching the Law

I have never regretted for one moment my decision to study law and then to become a teacher of the subject, rather than a practitioner. Of course I do argue cases as well – and am a founder member of well-known barristers’ chambers, Matrix. But I have never felt the lure of full time practice. For me the law is about ideas, and the students to talk to about them. Practising law requires you to work within the box of received knowledge – it is like chess with the creativity occurring within the rules. The scholar is able, when he or she wants, to wander outside the rulebook altogether. That is what makes academic life so compelling.

We should always remember, however, that it is the responsibility of any good scholar, whether in the social sciences, humanities or any other discipline, to share that experience and that joy of learning. That is why I am delighted to be supporting the Being Human festival in its first year. I hope that it will be the first of many.

You can watch Professor Gearty talking about the importance of the humanities and social sciences as part of Prospering Wisely.

Conor Gearty is Professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics and Fellow of the British Academy. You can watch Professor Gearty talking about the importance of the humanities and social sciences as part of Prospering Wisely here.

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