Law schools face crackdown as legal education goes under spotlight
Legal Week reports: The three biggest legal regulators have launched a full-scale review of legal education and training as concerns about the oversupply of law students continue to escalate.
The review by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and the Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards (IPS) will examine routes to qualification and the requirements placed on law schools in light of the likely future shape of the legal market.
College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage welcomed the review and argued that it was long overdue. He added: “It [the review] must be root and branch and embrace the undergraduate degrees as well as post-graduate courses. It also needs to look at matching what lawyers do within the legal services market with a brand new education and training framework.”
In the mid 1990s, when I was CEO of BPP Law School, I attended an education conference. An academic from the University of London (I cannot, now, recall her name) raised a concern that The Law Society was seeking to dictate to universities the content of university law degrees. Paul Pharaoh, speaking on behalf of The Law Society, responded drily that if a university wished their law degree to be a ‘qualifying law degree’ then it must comply with the requirements laid down by The Law Society. I could hear a fair number of pins drop.
Legal education is too important to be designed solely around the needs of the vocational law schools – those providers which run courses for the Legal Practice Course (Solicitors) and the Bar Professional Training Course (Barristers) – or even the needs of a profession in future dominated by Tesco Law? The ‘law’ content of both the LPC and BPTC currently is by no means intellectually demanding. There is a great deal of content to get through, no doubt, but the ‘sentiment’ I have seen on many websites is that the LPC / BPTC (a) is fairly easy and (b) is of little value in practice. Such comments do, of course, need to be taken with some salt, but those same students do often base their comments on what they find when they get into practice. So, work does need to be done on the LPC/BPTC. The ‘Laws’ of course, are the Laws – set down in statute and caselaw; so the academic law degree stage can’t be blamed there. In fact, much of the content of these vocational courses, rightly, is concerned with procedure, and the skills needed by lawyers to practice. If they are not up to scratch then the regulators need to address it. The hard law or *Black Letter* law has, traditionally been covered by the universities at the academic stage.
Nigel Savage, CEO of The College of Law, writes on his blog on the College of Law website…
Maybe we need more radical solutions? Let’s take the undergraduate LL.B law degree. What does it really prepare students for? It is taught largely by individuals who have never practised law and who increasingly have PhDs in a wide range of areas that bear no resemblance to the practice of law. Students are required to spend a semester – or if they are lucky an academic year – studying contract law, at the end of which they will never have seen a contract. Students will be told they are taught to think like lawyers. They are not. They are taught to wade through bizarre factual problems, which is a useful exercise, but what they really need is to think in terms of solutions. David Chavkin, a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law, recently said, ‘if the goal of medical school were to teach students not how to be doctors but how to think like doctors, would you want to be a graduate’s first patient?’.
Read the full post: The law degree – fit for purpose?
A number of points arise:
1. It is not unreasonable that universities should provide high quality legal education in subjects relevant to future lawyers and these areas be required if a student wishes to practise as a lawyer.
2. It is also important to remember that not all students who read law wish to practise law. Law is a social science, a study in its own right, of value also to those who study it with a view to going into other disciplines. Curiously, the teaching of Jurisprudence – or legal philosophy – has rather dropped off, even in the leading universities. This, I believe, is a mistake for Jurisprudence considers the politico-philosophical basis of our law and its rich history. To dismiss the academic stage of legal education as being taught by people with Ph.ds is not a particularly credible proposition in my view. The law is the law – there is a lot of detail, a great deal of concept and a great deal of politico-economic and social context to the decisions of our judges and the deliberations of our MPs – thankfully
3. Law is an intellectual discipline. Good lawyers need to have a firm grasp of legal principle – and the devil is in the detail, to use that much borrowed phrase. When I did a review of legal education for the Magic Circle firms some years ago – they were interested in a City oriented LPC – I remember the then managing partner of Slaughter & May telling me that law is a cerebral and intellectual discipline. It was, he told me, of ‘first importance that trainees had a firm grounding in black letter law’. I cannot imagine that much has changed in that regard in the last fifteen years. If anything, as laws become ever more complex, I would have thought it more important that law students who are going into the profession have a very thorough grasp of law in relevant areas and, as important, the principles of legal theory and highly developed legal research skills.
4. I would not wish to see the vocational law schools leaning on the regulators – or the regulators succumbing – to a view that legal education and practice can be conflated conveniently into a dumbed down course. The College of Law and BPP University College both enjoy the right to award degrees. I hope they use this power wisely and do not, for convenience, reduce the intellectual and content element of legal study to suit their needs at the expense of the future of the profession or the independent study of law as an intellectual discipline.
5. I am fairly certain, having talked to some very experienced practitioners on both sides of the profession that much of the practise of law is actually learned in practice. Unfortunately, not all law firms can afford the expensive training infrastructure of the top City and Commercial firms and I would doubt that most pupil masters / mistresses can do more than give of their expertise as best they can and combine it with excellent work being done in The Inns and in some Chambers. This is a very complex issue.
It may be that the vocational law schools and the regulators will take offence at the suggestion that a future regulation of ‘qualifying content’ would ever be dumbed down. I mean no offence – but I do have two words which may be worth bearing in mind: *Degree inflation*. It is astonishing how some universities have awarded ever more Firsts, Upper Seconds and Lower Seconds compared to twenty-five years ago to students as the profession has sought to be more restrictive and selective. Given this phenomenon – it is not unreasonable to say that this review needs to take especial care of the content of the legal education syllabus.
5. The review needs to look very carefully at the syllabus needed, the needs of business, the legal profession and other fields of endeavour where a law degree would be useful and it certainly needs to look at the modules which are essential to a modern lawyer who wishes to practise. The vocational law schools should, in my view, continue to focus on procedure, skills and the wider aspects of commercial and other contextual practical knowledge and not become involved in the teaching of black letter law. That is, in my view, best left to those who have specialist knowledge of the ‘laws’. I think it fair to say, as a generalisation, that law teachers in universities know rather more about the ‘Laws’ than their counterparts in vocational law schools – who will, in turn, probably know more about legal skills and procedures and practice? Perhaps more discussion between academic stage universities and providers of the LPC/BPTC on content would be an idea?
6. The issue of numbers will continue to be a very difficult issue for universities and the profession to deal with. I make no comment on that issue here.
This is not a detailed analysis. I merely pose these issues for debate and discussion and do not ‘prescribe’…. as always.