Wednesday, December 28, 2005

How I became Interested in Law

I wonder how people become lawyers. For some it must be the lure of money; for others it is the desire for justice. For me it was neither. My entry was a two-step process of error and luck. Let me tell you the story.

Error: I wanted to study economics at LSE. I started and by the end of the first year I knew my mathematics wasn't going to keep up with the pace. And I couldn't face the prospect of another two years of the same. Just before university I had worked with a tenants' association and knew a little about law. That would be my alternative. I spoke to my tutor who thought losing me to the law department could only be a boon to economics. The convenor of the law department was kindly enough to accept my application to transfer. All it took was for the registrar to sign the transfer and I would embark on a new degree.

Unfortunately, the registrar was one of those people who believed that once a bed was made you had to lie on it regardless--an acolyte of Procrustes. I couldn't understand why he was so difficult about it as everyone else, economics and law, were happy. I came out of his office with a glum face. I heard a noise and it was one of the several women who worked in the registrar's office. She was asking me what was making me sad. I told her the story and she commiserated sending me on my way with a "Don't worry, dear." Hmm.

I spent the summer vacation working in factories saving money for the following year. Some of it I spent on a holiday with my girlfriend in the south of France. It was near the end of September when we returned and waiting for me was a letter from the LSE. In it the registrar told me he was pleased to approve my transfer from economics to law. What? I was exultant but very confused.

Back at LSE for the first term of law, I went to the registrar's office to collect my papers. This time I was smiling as I entered the office where the women worked. They recognized me and asked how I was. I told them the strange thing that happened: how the registrar had inexplicably changed his mind. They looked at each other in a conspiratorial way and said they had something to tell me. After my last visit they were sorry for me and my plight and wanted to help. They typed the approval letter and inserted it among the letters to be signed by the registrar at the end of the day. They knew he rarely read them. He signed away, and signed mine. It was done and he didn't even have to know. The rules were subverted and all was neatly filed away. I was agog. In my future work on barristers' clerks I was to recall this event.

Only one small problem marred my triumph. I hated law. It was boring, rule-bound, memory-based stuff that was remote from anything I was interested in. Nor could I entertain another change to something else. I was now lying uncomfortably on Procrustes' bed. I knew I was not going to become a lawyer.

Luck 1: Although law did not inspire me, including the idea of the practice of law, I did come to change my ideas about law in society. During another summer vacation a friend and I took a long and at times tedious trip from London overland to Athens, thence to Cairo where we resumed overland to Nairobi in Kenya. This meant crossing the Sahara Desert. Since we had booked nothing in advance except our return air ticket, we had to get whatever travel was available. We knew there was a train to Khartoum from the bottom of Egypt at Wadi Halfa. What we didn't expect was that the only available seats would be in fourth class. Fourth class on Sudan Railways was stark. Wooden benches with a luggage rack overhead; windows without glass; and in the centre of the carriage were two booths without doors that had holes in the floor that were our latrines. Drinking water was piped directly from the Nile into two large earthenware pots. The journey's official time was 30 hours but everyone knew it took more than twice that.

Five hundred yards outside the station the train made its first unscheduled stop for several hours before lumbering onwards. Leaving aside the majesty of the Sahara Desert, which we trundled over at about 20 mph, wherein we watched people leave the train and walk towards the horizon, we were aware that the train was filling up with people, lots of people. After the first day's travel the inside was completely full. People squeezed together on the benches while some squashed themselves into the luggage racks which were like hammocks. From then on all newcomers had to ride on the roof of the train.

Being on the roof was illegal, but if Sudan Railways had enforced the rule there would have been rebellion in the country. There were not sufficient trains to carry everyone in comfort. (Rather like the present day British railways.) One of the charming features of the journey was the train's efforts to accommodate the faithful. Every so often it would stop to allow prayers. Shortly after one prayer session and the train was gently sidling along, cries were heard and the train came to another halt. I looked out of the window and saw a man rolling around the ground in some pain. Officials were running towards him, one of whom looked like a policeman. The roof riders were shouting and gesticulating angrily at the group on the ground. Their reaction didn't make much sense and I asked my neighbour if he understood what was happening.

"He is being arrested for travelling illegally on the roof of the train." My neighbour wasn't smiling nor was he taking the rise out of me: he was serious. "They are shouting at him because he is holding up the train by having fallen off."

"But," I stammered, "if he's being arrested, why aren't those on roof?"

While it was illegal to ride on the roof, one only came to official notice when one did something out of the ordinary like falling off the roof. The miscreant had acted selfishly and carelessly without considering his fellow travellers. He should suffer the full rigours of the law. Seventy two hours after leaving Wadi Halfa, we pulled into Khartoum. But the law student was very confused.

Luck 2: Back at LSE facing my final year, I had to decide if I was going to become a lawyer when I graduated. If I wanted to then I had to take certain required courses to satisfy the Law Society and the Bar Council, the guardians of the legal profession. Among them was evidence and revenue. The prospect was awful. I decide against and in favour of fun that year. I signed up for jurisprudence, criminology, Marxist theories of law, and anthropology of law. The last two turned my head and made me realise that there was much more to law than conventionally taught. And legal anthropology showed me that the state was not the only enforcer of law. There were plenty of acephalous groups who were ordering their existences without its sanction.

By the end of my law degree I was covinced I didn't want to practise law, but I did like it. Not the normal, conventional types of law, but those realms on the borders of law. They were the ones I wanted to inhabit. Where secretaries subverted the university's bureaucracy and rancorous roof riders castigated their fallen brethren. Alice in Wonderland began to look more like a legal text than did Cheshire and Fifoot on Contract. Ambiguity, subversion, transgression, these were the true elements of law while rules paled in comparison.

I couldn't wait!



Dev said...

I just went thorough what you experienced as a student. I liked it.

johnflood said...

Thanks, dev. It's good to know I'm not the only one. I do wonder how many others share our experiences.

Anonymous said...


I am the second year Law student. I love what I'm doing but it's so easy to give up ... harder and harder. I will try not to ...

Natasha Phillips said...

What a great post; law taught at university is both mind numbing and pointless but that is why I chose SOAS - I knew I was going to get see the sexier side of the law. And it didn't disappoint.

What did disappoint though, was the lack of enthusiasm most of our teachers had, and that I think, is what can sometimes make the difference.

Most of us, given the choice, would rather ride on the roof of the train than be constrained by the wooden props within it ;-)