Of legal education, Blackstone writes,
The advantages that might result to the science of the law itself, when a little more attended to in these seats of knowledge, perhaps, would be very considerable. The leisure and abilities of the learned in these retirements might either suggest expedients, or execute those dictated by wiser heads, for improving its method, retrenching its superfluities, and reconciling the little contrarieties, which the practice of many centuries will necessarily create in any human system; a task which those who are deeply employed in business, and the more active scenes of the profession, can hardly condescend to engage in.
And as to the interest, or…the reputation of the universities themselves, I may venture to pronounce, that if ever this study should arrive to any tolerable perfection, either here or at Cambridge, the nobility and gentry of this kingdom would not shorten their residence upon this account, nor perhaps entertain a worse opinion of the benefits of academic education. Neither should it be considered as a matter of light importance, that while we thus extend the (ambit) of university learning, and adopt a new tribe of citizens within these philosophical walls, we interest a very numerous and very powerful profession in the preservation of our rights and revenues.
For I think it past dispute that those gentlemen who resort to the inns of court with a view to pursue the profession, will find it expedient, whenever it is practicable, to lay the previous foundations of this, as well as every other science, in one of our learned universities. We may appeal to the experience of every sensible lawyer, whether anything can be more hazardous or discouraging, than the usual entrance on the study of the law.
A raw and inexperienced youth, in the most dangerous season of life, is transplanted on a sudden into the midst of allurements to pleasure, without any restraint or check but what his own prudence can suggest; with no public direction in what course to pursue his inquiries; no private assistance to remove the distresses and difficulties which will always embarrass a beginner.
In this situation he is expected to sequester himself from the world, and, by a tedious lonely process, to extract the theory of law from a mass of undigested learning; or else, by an assiduous attendance on the courts, to pick up theory and practice together, sufficient to qualify him for the ordinary run of business.
How little, therefore, is it to be wondered at, that we hear of so frequent miscarriages; that so many gentlemen of bright imaginations grow weary of so unpromising a search, and addict themselves wholly to amusements, or other less innocent pursuits; and that so many persons of moderate capacity confuse themselves at first setting out, and continue ever dark and puzzled during the remainder of their lives.
The evident want of some assistance in the rudiments of legal knowledge has given birth to a practice, which, if ever it had grown to be general, must have proved of extremely pernicious consequence I mean the custom, by some so very warmly recommended, of dropping all liberal education, as of no use to students in the law, and placing them, in its stead, at the desk of some skilful attorney, in order to initiate them early in all the depths of practice, and render them more dexterous in the mechanical part of business.
A few instances of particular persons…who, in spite of this method of education, have shone in the foremost ranks of the bar, afforded some kind of sanction to this illiberal path to the profession, and biased many parents, of short-sighted judgement, in its favour; not considering that there are some geniuses formed to overcome all disadvantages, and that, from such particular instances, no general rules can be formed; nor observing that those very persons have frequently recommended, by the most forcible of all examples, the disposal of their own offspring, a very different foundation of legal studies, a regular academic education…
Making, therefore, due allowance for one or two shining exceptions, experience may teach us to foretell that a lawyer, thus educated to the bar, in subservience to attorneys and solicitors,will find he has begun at the wrong end. If practice be the whole he is taught, practice must also be the whole he will ever know: if he be not instructed in the elements and first principles upon which the rule of practice is founded, the least variation from established precedents will totally distract and bewilder him: ‘ita lex scripta est’ is the utmost his knowledge will arrive at; he must never aspire to form, and seldom expect to comprehend, any arguments drawn, a priori, from the spirit of the laws and the natural foundations of justice.
Blackstone goes on to voice his own concern that this method of learning might have, what he sees as, undesirable consequences.
Nor is this all; for (as few persons of birth or fortune, or even of scholastic education, will submit to the drudgery of servitude, and the manual labour of copying the trash of an office,) should this infatuation prevail to any considerable degree, we must rarely expect to see a gentleman of distinction or learning at the bar. And what the consequence may be, to have the interpretation and enforcement of the laws (which include the entire disposal of our properties, liberties, and lives) fall wholly into the hands of obscure or illiterate men, is matter of very public concern.
He then returns to his main argument.
The inconveniences here pointed out can never be effectually prevented, but by making academic education a previous step to the profession of the common law, and at the same time making the rudiments of the law a part of academic education.
For sciences are of a sociable disposition, and flourish best in the neighbourhood of each other; nor is there any branch of learning but may be helped and improved by assistances drawn from other arts.
If, therefore, the student in our laws has formed both his sentiments and style by perusal and imitation of the purest classical writers, among whom the historians and orators will best deserve his regard;
if he can reason with precision, and separate argument from fallacy, by the clear simple rules of pure unsophisticated logic;
if he can fix his attention, and steadily pursue truth through any the most intricate deduction, by the use of mathematical demonstrations;
if he has enlarged his conceptions of nature and art, by a view of the several branches of genuine experimental philosophy;
if he has impressed on his mind the sound maxims of the law of nature, the best and most authentic foundation of human laws;
if, lastly, he has contemplated those maxims reduced to a practical system in the laws of imperial Rome;
if he has done this, or any part of it, (though all may be easily done under as able instructors as ever graced any seats of learning,) a student thus qualified may enter upon the study of the law with incredible advantage and reputation.
And if, at the conclusion, or during the acquisition of these accomplishments, he will afford himself here a year or two’s further leisure, to lay the foundation of his future labours in a solid scientific method, without thirsting too early to attend that practice which it is impossible he should rightly comprehend, he will afterwards proceed with the greatest ease, and will unfold the most intricate points with an intuitive rapidity and clearness.
I shall not insist upon such motives as might be drawn from principles of economy, and are applicable to particulars only: I reason upon more general topics. And therefore to the qualities of the head, which I have just enumerated, I cannot but add those of the heart; affectionate loyalty to the king, a zeal for liberty and the constitution, a sense of real honour, and well-grounded principles of religion, as necessary to form a truly valuable English lawyer…And, whatever the ignorance of some, or unkindness of others, may have heretofore untruly suggested, experience will warrant us to affirm, that these endowments of loyalty and public spirit, of honour and religion, are nowhere to be found in more high perfection than in the two universities of this kingdom.
… You will permit me, however, very briefly to describe rather what I conceive an academic expounder of the laws should do, than what I have ever known to be done.
He should consider his course as a general map of the law, marking out the shape of the country, its connections and boundaries, its greater divisions and principal cities: it is not his business to describe minutely the subordinate limits, or to fix the longitude and latitude of every inconsiderable hamlet. His attention should be engaged, like that of the readers in Fortescue’s inns of chancery,
“in tracing out the originals, and as it were the elements, of the law.”
For if, as Justinian has observed, the tender understanding of the student be loaded at the first with a multitude and variety of matter, it will either occasion him to desert his studies, or will carry him heavily through them, with much labour delay, and despondence. These originals should be traced to their fountains…above all, to that inexhaustible reservoir of legal antiquities and learning, the feudal law…the law of nations in our western orb.
These primary rules and fundamental principles should be weighed and compared with the precepts of the law of nature, and the practice of other countries; should be explained by reasons, illustrated by examples, and confirmed by undoubted authorities; their history should be deduced, their changes and revolutions observed, and it should be shown how far they are connected with, or have at any time been affected by, the civil transactions of the kingdom.
A plan of this nature, if executed with care and ability, cannot fail of administering a most useful and rational entertainment to students of all ranks and professions; and yet it must be confessed that the study of the laws is not merely a matter of amusement; for, as a very judicious write has observed upon a similar occasion, the learner,
“will be considerably disappointed, if he looks for entertainment without the expense of attention.”
An attention, however, not greater than is usually bestowed in mastering the rudiments of other sciences, or sometimes pursuing a favourite recreation or exercise.
And this attention is not equally necessary to be exerted by every student upon every occasion. Some branches of the law, as the formal process of civil suits, and the subtle distinctions incident to landed property, which are the most difficult to be thoroughly understood, are the least worth the pains of understanding, except to such gentlemen as intend to pursue the profession.
To others I may venture to apply, with a slight alteration, the words of Sir John Fortescue when first his royal pupil determines to engage in this study:
“It will not be necessary for a gentleman, as such, to examine with a close application the critical niceties of the law. It will fully be sufficient, and he may well enough be denominated a lawyer, if under the instruction of a master he traces up the principles and grounds of the law, even to their original elements. Therefore, in a very short period, and with very little labour, he may be sufficiently informed in the laws of his country, if he will but apply his mind in good earnest to receive and apprehend them. For, though such knowledge as is necessary for a judge is hardly to be acquired by the (study by lamplight) of twenty years, yet, with a genius of tolerable perspicacity, that knowledge which is fit for a person of birth or condition may be learned in a single year, without neglecting his other improvements.”
…[T]o the long and illustrious train of noble and ingenuous youth, who are not more distinguished among us by their birth and possessions, than by the regularity of their conduct and their thirst after useful knowledge, to these our benefactor has consecrated the fruits of a long and laborious life, worn out in the duties of his calling; and will joyfully reflect…that he could not more effectually have benefited posterity, or contributed to the service of the public, than by founding an institution which may instruct the rising generation in the wisdom of our civil polity, and inspire them with a desire to be still better acquainted with the laws and constitution of their country.
Edited for ease of reading.Text modernised where appropriate.