Lessons in law from the 18th century to today

Thomas Reeve

There is in the Old Library of Trinity Hall a manuscript (Trinity Hall, Ms. 48) dating from the eighteenth century which has advice about studying law.  Books about how to study law are a well-established feature of modern legal educational literature.  With Glanville Williams (whose landmark Learning the Law (1945) is due in 2020 to go into its 17th edition), Cambridge has played its part in this, as has Trinity Hall in the development of legal education over the centuries, not least by initiating nineteenth-century reforms to test the fruits of legal study which became the modern Law Tripos.  The presence of a manuscript at Trinity Hall on how to study law is, therefore, not surprising.  The directions in it were written by Sir Thomas Reeve [1], when he was Lord Chief Justice (1736-7), for his nephew, who is not named in the manuscript.

The Reeve directions were valued by his near contemporaries – the great Sir William Blackstone acknowledged how he was inspired by them; they were used by Josiah Quincy, the celebrated American lawyer, in 1763; and English lawyer, Francis Hargrave printed an edition of them in 1792.  However, we do not know who transcribed them in Trinity Hall’s manuscript, nor precisely when this was done.  The nephew for whom Reeve wrote the directions was either Edward Place or Thomas Reeve, both of whom were admitted to the Middle Temple in 1730 and 1740 respectively.

Trinity Hall MS 48 fol. 25

The Reeve directions [2] are in the form of numerous principles, for example:

(1) Do not rely blindly on secondary literature as authority for legal propositions

(2) Observe the latitude or restrictions implicit in legal terms

(3) Draw on the experience of practitioners

(4) Use the latest editions of law books

(5) Be attentive to detail, ‘sentence by sentence’, reading a text more than once

(6) Use statutes and cases for the proof of an opinion which alone is not authority

(7) Ensure commentators ‘quote very fair’

(8) Learn the general reasons on which the law is founded

(9) Regulate your study; and

(10) Make notes ‘your own’ and render things noted easy for the memory.

Reeve also sets out recommended reading – the sixteen works he cites include, from his own lifetime, Matthew Hale, History of the Common Law (1713), William Salkeld, Reports of Cases in the Court of King’s Bench (1718), Thomas Wood, An Institute of the Laws of England (1720); and, from an earlier age, Thomas Littleton, Tenures (1481), Christopher St. German, Dialogue Between a Doctor of Divinity and a Student of the Common Law (1528-31), and Edward Coke, Institutes of the Laws of England (1628-1644).

The Reeve principles for the study of law are still worthy of consideration today.  Dr Rachel Clement Tolley, law Fellow at Trinity Hall, says: ‘Many of the Reeve directions echo the advice I give my undergraduate students today: provide authority for propositions of law, but make sure you reference cases and statutes, rather than the textbook…However, whilst I advise my students to be attentive to detail, the modern law student certainly does not have time to read everything “sentence by sentence” and “more than once”! Today’s students must learn which texts to read carefully and repeatedly, and which texts to skim read, picking out only one or two key points’. And: ‘The Reeve instructions are also notable for what they omit. I expect my students to adopt a critical distance from the law as it stands and evaluate those aspects of the law which might be described as deficient, in some way’.

Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales 2013-17, and a Trinity Hall alumnus, also recognises the value of Reeve’s advice, including ‘finding the time to read and read again important passages in seminal texts and cases’ and ‘never relying blindly on secondary sources’ – but he also recommends ‘a critical approach to established law and opinions on that law’, studying ‘other contemporary systems of law’, understanding ‘the digital revolution, its effect on the law and the way in which existing principles of black letter law can be developed to underpin it’, and having ‘a grounding in the application of ‘the rule of law and in ethics’.

A fuller study of the Trinity Hall manuscript, also placing it in its wider historical context, is to be printed for use in the Library in 2020.

This is a guest post by Professor Norman Doe, Cardiff University.

References

[1] Baker, J.H. ‘Reeve, Sir Thomas (1672/3–1737)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); online: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/23303.

[2] Trinity Hall,  MS 48 fols. 25-28.