The Case for Philosophers in the City

“I often think that knowledge of the law is a bit of a handicap to a barrister.”

– Horace Rumpole [from Rumpole of the Bailey]

Be upstanding!

There’s no way around this: I’m sure this article is bound to upset some students, either in Philosophy or Law. However, this article does not serve to snatch vacation schemes and training contracts from Law students, but instead wishes to encourage more students to study Philosophy.

In addition, I hope that I can get current Philosophy students to view their degree as their gateway into the City (and show the City why they should have you!). With my peacekeeping introduction done: this is why firms should hire philosophers, and not lawyers…

How do you plead?

I will make no secret: I do aspire to become a lawyer. But, in a way, it is why I decided to study Philosophy.

I was told before choosing my degree, by my best friend’s father, ‘Neville, do not study law if you want to be a lawyer’. I was rather surprised – my friend’s father was a very successful lawyer in one of the top 5 UK legal firms, and in the top 10 globally. But his advice was sound. He explained to me that by studying Law for three years, you become disillusioned. He described how he had seen his Law-studying colleagues become overworked, tired, angry, and hateful of their subject. Why do all that work, when you can just convert?

I was still a little surprised, and asked him ‘but if I haven’t studied Law, then how could I keep up with those who have? Isn’t it like not studying medicine and then applying for work at a doctor’s surgery?

My friend’s father explained that everyone who wants to become a lawyer has to do the LPC (legal practice course), a one-year course. Those who have studied Law do their 3-Year degree, and then take the LPC. Those who are ‘non-Law’ graduates, have to do an extra qualification before the LPC called the GDL (graduate diploma in Law) which also takes a year. Those who have studied non-Law subjects do their 3-Year degree, then take the GDL, and then take the LPC. The GDL gets non-Law students up to speed and on par with their Law graduate colleagues. And, most importantly, Law firms don’t discriminate between Law and non-Law students!

However, here comes the gem: legislation is in motion that looks to change the GDL/LPC process to something called the SQE – the solicitors’ qualifying exam (oh, lawyers do love their jargon…). This is a two year course that combines the GDL’s and LPC’s purposes – and all Law students must take this. Studying Law now has no temporal advantage in the new system! Both sets of students, Law and non-Law must take the same 2 year course after their undergraduate degrees.

However, the new system also indicates something else: with the equality of paths in the new system, it implies that non-Law students are equally capable of becoming lawyers, despite lacking familiarity with the subject. Clearly, a person’s skills are the most important quality for practising Law, not knowledge.

Let the record reflect…

Now, I study Philosophy, and this is a Philosophy forum – hence, let me indulge you as to what skills Philosophy students have to offer. Oh, and let me see what skills are sought for when hiring would-be lawyers…

Degree Name Skills/Abilities Profession
PhilosophyOral CommunicationLawyer
Philosophy Written Communication Lawyer
Philosophy Organisation/Time
Philosophy Analytical Thought Lawyer
Philosophy Logical Reasoning Lawyer
Philosophy Inter-Personal Interaction Lawyer
Philosophy Research/Rapid Information
Philosophy Teamwork/Collaboration Lawyer
PhilosophyEclectic KnowledgeLaywer
LawKnowledge of LawLawyer

For evidence used in this table, please click the links in the table’s header.

So, it is easy to see that Philosophy provides virtually all the qualities needed to become a lawyer. In fact, as a generalisation, Philosophy degrees provide all the essential qualities to become a lawyer, bar not actually knowing the subject content.

Now, I know what a counter-argument might be: Law students might claim that they also garner such skills when studying their degree. Whilst I will not attempt to dispute what Law students might (or might not) learn on their courses, I would argue that Philosophy students have a better depth of skill in each of the areas listed above.

For example, let’s take the skill of ‘written communication’. Both Law students and Philosophy students have to write extensive papers as part of their degree. However, Philosophy students will garner better skills in clarity. Philosophy is quite a bizarre experience – we have to read hyper-complex and nigh unintelligible texts (for an example of this, and a dose of masochism, see Wittgenstein) yet write our own papers with the utmost clarity and concision.

Philosophy professors don’t care whether you’ve invented a new idea if they can’t read it in a simple format – they’ll just glaze over it and mark you down for incomprehensibility. So, Philosophy students are very used to taking large, abstract, and nearly indecipherable content, understanding and assimilating it, and then constructing a readable reconstruction and analysis.

Let’s look at another example, ‘logical reasoning’. Philosophy students up and down the country almost certainly have to take a module in Logic. At the University of Warwick, it is compulsory for all Philosophy students to take it in First Year. Hence, Philosophy graduates are skilled and erudite debaters. We are taught how to construct valid arguments, how to spot the flaws in others’ statements and constructions, and how to manipulate argumentation to further our own goals.

Law students might be able to advocate well, but when it comes down to the minutiae of a debate, an argument has to be water-tight. Philosophers are inculcated in the ability to discover and unpick the smallest of holes of an argument. Some might call this pedantry, we call it detail-orientated, focused, and thorough. You know, the qualities you’d look for in a lawyer….

May it please the court…

So, Philosophy students have the skills needed, and more, to become a top-class lawyer. What else can the degree do for you?

Philosophy doesn’t just give you a bank of skills to draw on, it gives you a range of knowledge and experience to utilise. undergraduate Philosophy requires students to study:

  • Ancient texts (for example, Plato’s ‘Republic’)
  • Foreign texts (for example, Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’)
  • Modern texts (for example, Brownlee’s ‘Conscience and Conviction’)
  • Easy-read texts (for example, Sartre’s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’)
  • Nigh incomprehensible texts (for example, Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’)

Yes, there is a huge degree of skill required to read and understand all these texts (and then use them in written argumentation), but crucially it imparts a huge amount of holistic knowledge to the philosopher. When you read these texts, you gain an appreciation of the society and era in which they are written. Without this context, it is difficult to understand the motivation or reason of some of Philosophy.

For example, reading Socrates’ ‘Apology’ gives the philosopher an understanding of ancient Athenian forums, democracy, and the justice system. Reading Camus’ ‘The Plague’ gives the philosopher an understanding of the shift in perceptions and values post-WWII, such as how one perceives evil. All of this knowledge, experience, and understanding can only be gained through holistic reading. It gives the philosopher unparalleled breadth of thought, yet still gives them the skills to hone down on details if need be. Law students would struggle to get such a rich wealth of information by studying case law letter by letter.

This is of great importance when graduates enter the job market. Law firms want applicable talent – it is no good whether you can recite the judgement from ‘R vs Brown’ off by heart, if you can’t contextualise a present case and use contemporary, yet-historically informed, analysis. Philosophers, on the contrary, are able to draw on an eclectic range of sources, and draw links between parallel phenomena to help solve the problem at hand.

Let me give a personal example. I was lucky enough to attend an ‘Insight Day’ at ‘Slaughter and May’, a legal firm in the City. We were given the exercise of analysing some filing records of a company. In our group we began the analysis, before I quickly spotted a problem. Each record had a brief description, yet the language had been butchered so that there was little context to what was being described. I was particularly concerned with a few entries that stated ‘appointment of [X]‘. I highlighted to my group that we did not know what that word meant. It could have meant:

  • An arrangement to meet someone, or do something (for example, a doctor’s appointment)
  • Assigning a job or position to someone (for example, someone’s appointment as Prime Minister)
  • Or, more unlikely, furniture.

Ruling out the third option, it was clear that the word could have meant two separate things – which would result in two different analysis outcomes. Despite my attempts to warn the group, the snorted in derision saying that ‘it was obvious’ that it meant the second option. I agreed, given the context of the document, but I insisted we had to document that we were slightly unsure of the word’s meaning given no context.

Later, I was praised by a trainee for highlighting such a detail, saying that they would have done the same and checked with their supervisor, despite the meaning being ‘obvious’ – they wouldn’t risk a client relation on the possibility of making a silly miscommunication error.

Philosophy was crucial to me in that example. It had taught me to appreciate the details of a text, weigh up semantics, and to scrutinise every bit of work. The other Law students did not appreciate how to analyse the semantics and nuances of the task, or even know what to look for. Their knowledge of Law was of no advantage to them in the task, whereas I came fully equipped and augmented with Philosophy.

This session is adjourned!

Law is a fantastically hard degree – I mustn’t lie. I’ve seen what Law students have to read, memorise, and write. It’s tough; I understand. For those who wish to do Law as a degree, more power to you.

President Macron studied Philosophy at university, before becoming the leader of France.

However, Philosophy is equally hard, challenging, and (dare I say) more rounded than a degree in Law. There is a misconception that philosophers sit in trees, stroke beards, drink wine and think about life, and that is all they are destined to do. Although that does occur (but only on my Friday nights), it is more the case that philosophers are actually preparing to become the world’s future leaders.

Philosophy pervades everything, from Science, to Politics, to Commerce, to Law – if you have a strong foundation in Philosophy, than you can enter virtually any profession or subject area (yes, you may still need to get additional qualifications, training, and so on – Philosophy is a good degree not a skeleton key). I’ve already shown how Philosophy gives the perfect range of skills to practice law, and with the SQE coming in to replace the existing qualifications, now is the best time to take Philosophy to become a lawyer.

I’ll leave you with a little poem to showcase the skill, wit, humour, and argumentation, that Philosophy has to offer employers. To understand it more, click here.

There was a young man who said “God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To think that the tree
Should continue to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”
“Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;
I am always about in the quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

– Ronald Knox [From ‘God in the quod’]


  1. Neville Birdi says:

    Thank you!

  2. H Cama says:

    Hope you find a job in law or in the city after you graduate

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