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HSC Legal Studies vs Law School

By Sean Clair in HSC
24th of March 2021

High school is a microcosm, and university is the big bad world.

When you’re browsing the uni pages for course descriptions, hoping to find that dream course that tickles your fancy, there are plenty of questions that go unanswered. Course outlines can only say so much, and sometimes we try and relate how the course description reads with what we already know (as in, what you studied in school). Frankly, it’s hard to really know exactly what your course is going to be like, and with that comes a lot of doubt and angst!

One of the biggest degrees out there is law. It’s a well-known course with a reputation. As such, thousands of keen students set their eyes on a law degree. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those students.

It’s pretty common for those who receive an offer to study law to rejoice and sing praise to the heavens, but later down the track, after some time undertaking the degree, realise that this isn’t what you thought it would be, at all. Often, those people are ex legal-studies students who compare their law degree to their time spent studying legal in the HSC. Not always, of course, but sometimes.

Thus, if you’re a legal studies student who is thinking of picking law, this article is for you. It’s not an article to scare you out of your degree, or to bait you into the legal world; it’s neither. This article is to offer you a genuine glimpse into what law school is like, and the differences (and similarities) it holds against HSC legal studies. Take it from an ex-legal-studieser, and a current law-schooler.


So let’s start by talking about legal. It’s 2 units out of your likely 10/11/12/13; a small slice of your workload pie. It has a structured syllabus with mandatory content dot points, underpinned by broad themes and challenges.

Where legal studies is a slice of the pie, law school is the pie (that is, unless you do a double degree). You undertake subjects each semester, usually around 3 or 4, which are structured by a course outline. The course outline is by no means as directive as a syllabus.


Now let’s talk about the differences and similarities in terms of expectations, content, writing styles, research methods, and workload.

First of all, and this in applicable for any degree, high school is a microcosm where you work much more closely with your teacher than you do in university. So, the expectation that you take accountability for your work and punctuality is greater in university.



Now let’s look at legal vs law school specifically. In legal studies, your job is to study certain facets of the law/legal institutions, have knowledge on how they work and their role, and then to evaluate and judge their effectiveness. So remember that in legal studies, the emphasis is on your ability to construct essays/responses that give a detailed look at a particular law/legal process/function (let’s say, the criminal investigation process), and point out to the marker why [the criminal investigation process] is effective/ineffective (or whatever the directive of the question is). It’s a simple formula.

In law, the emphasis is much more on studying the law exclusively. This involves minimal social commentary or opportunity to propose why a law is unjust. Put simply, all you are doing is learning the letter of the law and how it would operate in a scenario.

I mean, it’s in the name! Law is simply studying the law (i.e. statute and common law), whereas Legal Studies is not just the law, but any legal process/institution.

This is the main difference in my opinion, and it is often the source of disenchantment for students eager to get out there and making a difference to people’s lives using the law. There’s plenty of space for that after law school, but realistically, your law degree will be pretty much solely focused on studying the law as it stands today.



This segways into my next point: writing styles. As stated above, the broad expectations for law school are different, so this will inform your writing style. Don’t worry, you’ll pick this up in your degree, but to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, a common writing method in law school is the IRAC method. This stands for Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. It’s a method designed to limit commentary or opinion, focusing solely on how a Rule (law) would be applied in a legal scenario.

In legal studies, you would be expected to introduce LCMs to support your reasoning as to why this Rule (law) is ineffective/unjust or whatever the question demands. Explaining only how a piece of legislation, or a court, or an element of the investigation process works, without any kind of evaluation, wouldn’t get you anything higher than a band 4.

This isn’t to say using caselaw is redundant. In fact, the opposite is true. Caselaw is used ubiquitously at uni. You’ll spend a lot of time browsing databases such as AustLii, Lexus, or CaseLaw, for caselaw. Then, you’ll spend double that time reading it (ugh!). But really, research is a big component of law school. Sure, it’s important in legal studies also, but definitely not to the same extent. It’s okay to use cases handed to you by your teacher, or to browse webpages like ATARNotes for a go-to list of caselaw. But the expectation is just that bit higher at uni.



And this leads me to my final point of difference: workload. Law school is heavy lifting, but it’s rewarding all the same, just as anything that challenges you is. As long as you’re prepared for the uphill climb that is law school, you’ll be just fine!

Yet with that said, doing poorly in legal studies at school does not mean you are unprepared for a law degree and should not choose it. As I said earlier, law school demands different skills and approaches to learning content, and there’s often a myriad of reasons to explain one poor mark. Perhaps it’s something in your school environment that dissuades you from legal, or maybe you’re just really drawn to the challenge of a law degree. All perfectly valid reasons! However, I would say this too: consider the similarities, and if you don’t like legal there is a good chance you won’t like law too.


So, what’s the verdict? Law school vs Legal Studies: just how different are they? Well, put it this way: doing legal studies in school is by no means a prerequisite for law school. Why? Because they are different! Sure, doing legal sets you up nicely and it does help with some semester one content, but coming from a non-legal studies background does not put you at any disadvantage at all. In fact, you may feel fresh, enlivened and interested by the new world of law that you face.

Hopefully, this short peep into the differences and similarities between law and legal studies has left with you better equipped to make an informed decision that you are confident in.