What’s the difference between VCE Legal Studies and Law?By Ellen Kalaja in Tertiary Education
17th of October 2017
Ellen graduated in 2015 with an ATAR of 96.55. She now studies Arts/Law at Monash University.
If you have Legal Studies questions, ask them here!
Planning what to study at uni can be tricky. You might have subjects you really love doing for VCE, but have no idea what they would be like to take at uni.
When I started studying Law, I was unsure about how similar it would be to Legal Studies – and whether having done Legal Studies would help me at all.
So, this is your guide to understanding some of the similarities and differences between VCE Legal Studies and first-year Law!
There’s some content overlap – but not much.
In Legal Studies, your main focus is on how the legal system works, how effective different aspects of the legal system are, and the structure of Australian government.
While these are all important, and do form the basis of some discussion in Law, they aren’t the primary focus. Instead, the main focus is applying the law: being able to use your knowledge of particular statutes and cases to solve legal problems.
At the beginning of your Law degree, there is some overlap in the content. For example, learning about the three branches of government, and the court hierarchy.
But once you’ve got these basics down, the content moves on quickly to new topics. Pretty soon, those basics are treated as assumed knowledge.
Just like in Legal Studies, you’ll look at a bunch of different cases. Some cases you learn about in Legal Studies might pop up again in Law (hello, Donoghue v Stevenson). But at uni, you’ll look at these cases in much more detail.
While your Legal Studies teachers would have told you the facts of a case and the decision reached by the courts, your Law lecturers will likely just give you the names of cases you need to know. Then, it’s up to you to read the cases (or case summaries), and identify the decisions of the courts.
Another difference in content is how statutory interpretation is addressed. In Legal Studies, you learn a few cases involving statutory interpretation. Perhaps you read Deing v Tarola, where the court had to interpret whether a studded belt counted as a regulated weapon for purposes of the Control of Weapons Act 1990.
All you really needed to know was the facts, what the issue was, and the judges’ decision.
Statutory interpretation also forms an important part of your Law degree, except you’ll be doing the interpreting! You’ll receive a piece of legislation and a set of facts. Using statutory interpretation tools you’re taught, you’ll need to try and work our what decision the judge should reach.
In this regard, the content of Law goes much deeper than in Legal Studies.
There’s a bigger workload, which means more studying.
Law involves a lot of reading. And I mean a lot.
For example, for one Law subject, a lecturer assigned us 120 pages of reading to be complete within one week. That instance was an anomaly; usually, there’s not as much reading as that, but still a fair amount – and definitely more than in Legal Studies.
Most of the time, you’ll need to have completed the assigned readings before class each week. This is because the lecturers might spend class time working through a specific case you were meant to have read. If you haven’t read it, you are going to be totally lost during class (I speak from experience).
In contrast, in Legal Studies, we were mostly taught information in class, and then answered some follow-up questions as homework. Because of this, your study technique for Law is going to be very different compared with Legal Studies.
If you’re anything like me, your revision techniques for Legal Studies mainly consist of memorising key terms, re-writing notes, and plenty of flashcards. While Legal Studies is very very heavy on the theory of legal concepts and terms, Law is far more concerned with the application of these concepts.
Memorisation is still involved, but once you know your stuff, you need to be able to apply it.
While cramming might have worked for Legal Studies, this isn’t going to work for Law exams. This is due to the sheer amount of content covered throughout each semester. But, similar to Legal Studies, when preparing for exams the best way to study is to do practice exam questions.
Exams are structured totally differently.
For Legal Studies exams, questions are all either short answer or extended response. But Law exams aren’t like that at all. The kind of exam questions I have come across so far in my degree are:
• Statutory interpretation questions: receiving a scenario and legislation, and interpreting the legislation in light of the facts of the scenario.
• Application questions: receiving a scenario involving two parties and having to write what each side would argue in a case, what relevant legislation each side would rely on, and what previous cases each side would cite, in order to find which party would ultimately be successful.
• Essay questions: slightly similar to the style of a 10 mark Legal Studies question. These questions are theory-based, and could involve having to give insight into the operation of the legal system. They usually only account for a small portion of the exam.
Another big difference is that, unlike Legal Studies, most Law exams are open book!
This means you don’t need to memorise all the facts of every single case you look at, because you can take summaries in with you. However, Law exams are usually designed to be difficult to finish in time, so reliance on notes will be minimal.
While the main purpose of Legal Studies exams is to see how much information you can recall, the main purpose of Law exams is to see if you are able to apply what you have learnt to a “real life” scenario. And how good you are at thinking on your feet.
Ultimately, if you’ve taken Legal Studies, you’ll be well-prepared for Law. Background knowledge on the structure of the legal system and Australian government will be handy.
However, as far as actually applying your knowledge goes, everyone who does a Law degree starts from pretty much the same level.
Further, all content you’re required to know will be taught to you during your degree, so don’t stress if you haven’t done Legal Studies! Studying Legal Studies might help in aiding your understanding of some concepts, but it won’t give you an outright advantage over others.