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The basics
Study abroad : Subject Guides

What areas of Law should you study?

Don't know your Civil Law from your Labour Law? We explain all the disciplines and tell you the top places to study...

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We tend to talk and think about the law as one homogenous thing, but this obviously isn’t the case: for example, intellectual property law has nothing to do with the laws which limit carbon dioxide emissions, while entire legal systems can vary wildly from state to state.


Students of Law will find there are different areas of Law that interest them particularly, and as their degree develops, or if they choose to continue to take further studies, there are more and more options to focus on specific legal areas. So, where do you start? 


It's important to first appreciate Law is a massive area of study. After all, it's at the very basis of what governs the societies we live in, has developed over thousands of years, and is in a constant state of change. It’s interpreted and reinterpreted, has national and international aspects, and is the subject of great, continual debate. It can all be a bit overwhelming! Here we break down the different disciplines of Law so you can get a better idea of what to study...


Environmental Law


What is Environmental Law?


Environmental law is an increasingly popular area of study, with a growing number of institutions offering it at an undergraduate and postgraduate level, either as a standalone course or an optional module. It’s easy to understand why: as the world faces environmental catastrophe, solutions to the challenges humanity faces have increasingly been sought in the legal sphere, through international treaties, customs and regulations. This, of course, requires there are people who understand what these agreements mean, how they are enforced (indeed, that they are enforced), how they should be interpreted, and so on. All this means its importance is only likely to grow.


Environmental law is also a great option for those wishing to study abroad because it’s scope is truly international: while all nations have their own environmental laws, international agreements make up a huge area of importance, meaning that an international perspective is absolutely necessary to study environmental law.



Where can you study Environmental Law?


At an undergraduate level, standalone Environmental Law degrees are not commonplace, however the Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia, has developed a pioneering undergraduate program: the Bachelor of Arts with a major in Environmental Law and Management. The course explores “human interactions with the environment; environmental management issues being faced in Australia and globally; the importance of economic, legal and policymaking on the environmental debate; and the role of sustainable development.”


At a postgraduate level, there are many more options to study Environmental Law, including:


  • The Environmental Law LLM at the University of Sussex, UK, where students “study both theoretical issues and practical ‘law in action’” allowing them to gain a “thorough grounding in the role of environmental law in the pursuit of global sustainability.”
  • At the University of Ottawa, Canada, the LLM with a specialisation in Global Sustainability and Environmental Law offers students the opportunity to explore issues of environmental sustainability at a local and global level through the sphere of environmental law, from ‘the UN to Canadian municipalities, and from multinational corporations to individual citizens’.
  • In the USA, the Law School at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the first universities to offer an Environmental Law degree, and the JD (Joint Degree) in Environmental Law provides students with a number of exciting opportunities, including the chance to “work under the supervision of a leading environmental practitioner on research projects for government agencies and public interest groups.”
  • Master of Laws in Environmental Law at the Australian National University “covers key areas of environmental law, from climate law to marine and coastal law, to commonwealth environmental law and environmental regulation,” and is designed to “examine the interrelationships between environmental law and policy, politics, economics, science and history.”


Public Law



Public law is the area of law which defines the relationship between individuals and states. This means it varies from nation to nation: public law in the UK, for example, is very different to public law in the USA, owing to different systems of governance, and the codified nature of the US constitution as opposed to the uncodified British constitution. This means you would be studying something different if you studied public law in the UK as opposed to the US, although this is complicated by the existence of international public law, for example, the laws which exist between nation states.


Areas of public law include:


  • Constitutional law, which defines the relationship between different branches of the state.
  • Administrative law focuses on the administration of the state and governance.
  • Criminal law is concerned with the violation of laws.


Within these areas of the law, there are various subsections, for example environmental law would fit under the rubric of both constitutional and administrative law, as would Human Rights law.


Public law is also distinct from private law, though the exact nature of the distinction is still debated by legal scholars, however a simple definition of private law is that it concerns the relationship between individuals and private institutions.


Where can you study Public Law?


General Public Law degrees include:

  • The LL.M in Public Law and Administration at the National University of Ireland, Galway, which examines "emerging and topical issues in public law from a comparative and international perspective", and is particularly suited to legal practitioners, public servants and others seeking to develop or update their knowledge of public law and legal research skills."
  • The Doctoral Degree Program in Public Law at the University of Texas At Austin emphasises the political nature of Public Law, arguing that as politics is about the "authoritative allocation of values, law and legal institutions are central to politics", offering a "study of legal institutions and law from the perspective of political science."
  • The Master of Laws in Law - Public International Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands offers an international perspective on Public Law, explaining that because of "globalisation and international interdependence, international law is changing", and covering a vast range of areas, including "public international law, including international criminal law, international human rights law, the law on peace and security, international institutional law, international dispute settlement including arbitration, international investment law, international economic law and the law on sustainable development."


There are also examples of degrees that fall more generally under the rubric of Public Law, for example the Human Rights and Development LLM at Aberystwyth University in Wales. This degree gives students the "opportunity to gain a thorough understanding of the law in relation to development, rights, governance and justice issues", studying "both the letter of the law and its many applications in a wider range of humanitarian and development case studies" in order to develop students "broader skills in legal analysis and research."


Civil Law



What is Civil Law?


Civil law has two distinct definitions:


  • A branch of the law concerned with non-criminal law, particularly in Anglo-sphere countries governed by common law.
  • A system of law derived from historic Roman law.


Civil law is important because it is at the basis of all systems of law in the Anglo-speaking world, but it is only in Ireland where Bachelor of Civil Law is the traditional law degree studied by all Law students. Ireland is an increasingly popular choice for international students, particularly in the aftermath of Brexit, with government policy focused on attracting more international students, so if you choose to Ireland as your study abroad location, and choose to study Law, your degree will be a Bachelor of Civil Law.


Options include:

  • The Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) at the National University of Ireland, Galway, which offers a "rich curriculum of core and optional legal subjects" with students being "encouraged and assisted in acquiring skills in legal analysis, legal research and written and oral communication." 
  • The Bachelor of Civil Law (Law and Society) at Dublin City University, which "combines innovative teaching of all the foundational law subjects (e.g. constitutional law, contract law, criminal law etc.), with critical perspectives on the nature of these subjects, on the practice of law and on the wider role of law in society."


Labour Law



The world of work might seem quite simple: people have jobs they go to, usually for eight hours a day, five days a week. They get paid a wage or salary for the work they do, and they retire once they’ve reached a certain age. Before people go to work, they get an education – this is compulsory until a person reaches their teens. We take all this for granted, however, it has taken centuries of struggle for these rights to be won, and in some cases, they aren’t always honoured. This is what Labour Law is all about: mediating the competing interests between employers and those they employ.


Options for studying Labour Law are limited, but if it is an area that you are interested in pursuing there are a number of institutions offering postgraduate courses in the subject, including:


  • At the University of Bristol, UK, Law graduates can study the Labour Law and Corporate Governance LLM, which "offers a range of units for those wishing to specialise in employment and company law matters" and "provides an opportunity to study both employment and company law aspects of modern business comprehensively."
  • Sydney Law School, part of the University of Sydney, Australia, has a Master of Labour Law and Relations degree, open to those with or withour an existing Law degree, and allowing students to take "specific units in labour law, employment law, and discrimination law and dispute resolution."


What will you need to study law?


Regardless of what area of law you decide to specialise in, there are certain skills you’ll need to have.


  • The ability to take a logical and reasoned approach to different sides of a debate.
  • The ability to understand each side of controversial arguments.
  • The ability to speak confidently.
  • The ability to construct arguments.
  • The ability to absorb large amounts of disparate information.
  • A sense of justice and responsibility.
Want to check which program suits you the best?
Find out with our new "Course Matcher" tool!

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