The criteria I have used for inclusion on this list are as follows. First universalism. These are works people in all times and places would benefit from reading, ruling out works specific to, say, the English criminal justice system. Second I found each of them immensely helpful in learning how to be a lawyer. I have made no concessions for accessibility, some are easier to read than others. I wouldn’t recommend that a student about to begin on a first year undergraduate degree read all of them before starting.
All of the authors on this list are dead white men (with the possible exception of Gaius who may not have been white). That is, I think, an inevitable product of the exclusion of women and others from the discipline in the past.
HLA Hart, The Concept of Law
Written as a book for students in the Clarendon law series, this is the single most important work of legal theory of the last century. My only quibble is with the title. It sets out an account of the conditions necessary for us to identify posited law, within any society. Other conceptions of the word “law” are in use, and are no less correct.
When I studied law several decades ago, the most important critic of Hart was Ronald Dworkin, who in a series of books and articles sought, amongst other things, to tear down the wall Hart built between the fact of the posited law as it is, and the separate question of what justice requires. My view, for what it is worth, is that Hart has proven the clear victor in this dispute. There is more to be gained from reading Lon Fuller’s The Morality of Law as a response.
(Buy a cheap second hand copy here, there is no point buying the third edition instead of the second.)
The Institutes of Gaius
Strictly speaking, this is the only ‘law’ book on this list (conceived as an account of a body of posited rules). It is an introductory law text for students written in the second century AD. Most things (art, science, philosophy etc) began with the Greeks. That is not true of law, where the Romans were the true originators.
Once upon a time, all students would have studied Roman law, but at least in England this practice has nearly died out. It is very useful for everyone to have some familiarity with a legal system different from their own. This enables us to break free from the rigid mindset that the law as it is is inevitable and just. For common lawyers, it is important to have some knowledge of civilian law (and vice versa) as the comparisons within the respective traditions are less fundamental.
Roman law is a useful comparator as it is (inevitably) less detailed than a modern legal system, enabling us to see its skeleton. Start with Gaius, and you will have a reasonable grasp of how any legal system has to be structured.
(Free to read in English here.)
JS Mill, On Liberty
A classic text on the proper limits of law. Although I was greatly influenced (and convinced) by Mill’s Harm Principle when younger, I am now certain that Mill’s arguments are often both weak, and contingent on facts about the world and human behaviour that are never proven. Regular readers of this blog will have realised that I am no utilitarian, and Mill’s work was, in my view, hamstrung by his commitment to this (ridiculous) intellectual tradition.
That said, Mill’s instincts were good, and there is benefit from considering why his arguments (largely) fail and what else might justify the kinds of conclusions he wished to reach.
(Available for free.)
I Kant, The Doctrine of Right
Which leads us to by far the worst written, most frustrating, and profound book on this list. Kant’s The Doctrine of Right is a difficult work. It is probably best to read the Mary Gregor translation, available here, rather than one of the creaky nineteenth century versions available online. Part 1 is the section to read (and re-read, and re-re-read.) Most philosophers neither know much about law nor are interested in the kinds of questions lawyers need answering. Kant was an exception. (The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals concerns quite separate issues.)
WN Hohfeld, Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning
Technically not a book but two articles in the Yale Law Journal from before the first World War (although subsequently collected as a book). Hohfeld died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 at the age of 39. His work was not wholly original, most of the distinctions he sought to draw had already been made by the New Zealander John Salmond. But, it is to say the least unusual for the work of any lawyer to be worth reading a century after his death, law books usually having the shelf life of a car manual. The distinctions he drew are basic and important, and avoid intellectual confusion.
If I had the choice of making the members of the UK Supreme Court read one work that would halp them to avoid error, it would be this.