Bang goes the law degree
By Christian Metcalfe
With universities focusing on employment statistics, is it the end of the law degree as we know it?
So you want to become a lawyer? The good and the bad news is that over the next five years the routes to qualification as either a solicitor, barrister or legal executive will be changing rapidly.
While the routes open to your parents’ generation or even that of older siblings may well have encountered a number of twists, turns or dead ends, new opportunities have developed since then.
The communications revolution and the changes to the provision of legal services wrought by the Legal Services Act, as law moves from a professional-based delivery system to a business-based system, will have a radical effect on the provision of legal education and training.
Also, the new fees regime, which could see fees soar to £9,000, means law students will be asking universities and colleges more specific questions as they look to secure the competitive edge over graduates from other ‘lesser’ law degree courses.
As a response to the changes in the legal market, the largest frontline legal regulators have commissioned a root-and-branch review into the ‘fitness for purpose’ of legal education and training (see feature, page 20), the most comprehensive review of its kind in the past 40 years.
The outcome of that review will not be known until December 2012 at the earliest, but students need to be aware of the potential changes to ensure that the provider they choose will give them the right tools for success.
Richard De Friend, director of the College of Law’s (CoL) Bloomsbury branch, suggests that the changes will see a rationalisation of the kinds of degree available and it will become important for prospective students and employers to know what they can expect from particular types of law degree. The crucial information for students will be employment statistics, which will be published as part of the new fees regime.
“Students will be able to know what bang they can get for their buck in higher education,” says De Friend.
In terms of substantive changes to law degrees he says there will be little change in the “elite academic universities”, including Oxford and Cambridge and members of the Russell Group of universities, as their graduates “are highly valued by employers, less because of what was done or learned on the degrees than for the kind of inherent qualities they are seen as having”.
Other universities will have to undergo significant redesigns of their law curriculums to develop degrees that better prepare students to practise law. To make such claims, the universities will have to show that their courses are sufficiently vocational and that students completing their degrees can handle a range of typical legal cases at trainee or even NQ-level.
To pass such degrees, students will have to show that they can draw up documents such as straightforward wills and conveyances, possibly conduct relatively non-contentious claims on behalf of clients, advise on uncomplicated divorces, and be ready for immediate employment at the end of the three-year course.
There will also be an increase in exempting degrees that incorporate academic and vocational stages, such as CoL’s two-year intensive vocational LLB degree followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), which is, in effect, a three-year intensive programme.
Four-year exempting law degrees are offered by the universities of Huddersfield, Northumbria and Westminster, which all combine a law degree with the LPC.
Northumbria also runs a unique course combining the three stages of qualifying – educational (LLB), vocational (LPC) and the training contract – that enables students to enter practice as fully-fledged solicitors. Nottingham Trent University runs a course that combines the LPC with a four-year sandwich degree.
There will still be a market for the high-quality liberal education degree such as law with social science, but there will be a greater emphasis on law degrees combined with business and financial or management studies. De Friend cites the interest that
large corporate firms show in graduates of Australian law schools, which combine such studies. Mid-range well-founded universities with business schools are most likely to go down that route.
Perhaps the most radical proposal for change to the law degree has been that recently championed by Rebecca Huxley-Binns of Nottingham School of Law.
“I want to abolish the foundation subjects, because they don’t have a purpose,” she says. “At the moment it’s permissible for a student to graduate with a law degree and not to have embraced the questions of justice and are not able to read a case. It’s scandalous what they’re graduating with.”
Huxley-Binns says that in place of the seven foundation subjects (contract, tort, crime, equity and trusts, EU law, property and public law), whose rigidity does students no favours, she would introduce a list of professional legal skills comprising: cases, legislation, legal theory, critical legal reasoning, ethics, legal writing, legal commercial awareness and dispute resolution and litigation.
“My view is that that list consists of a more up-to-date reflection of what legal business is,” she says. “Whether as a partner in a City firm or a paralegal giving advice over the phone, you’ll need those skills.
“People may think I’m advocating a knowledge-free law degree, but I’m not. You need the knowledge but also the skill. For example, land law could sit in legal reasoning. As long as they do the case law, people would be able to graduate with an LLB who didn’t do land law.”
Professor Fiona Cownie of Keele University says that although there would be a lot of support from law teachers to ditch the seven foundation subjects, she cannot see the profession accepting it very easily and, in any case, “while personally I would love to see abolition, there’s plenty of room within the foundation subjects for experiment.
There’s already an awareness among law teachers, although they may not see it as future-proofing, of the need to offer students a greater range of transferable skills.”
De Friend notes that in the medium term the foundation subjects will not change, as they are “part of the DNA of our legal system”.
Instead, the issue will be whether they are delivered with an academic slant or a more vocational focus.
Referring to CoL’s new LLB, he says: “We’re still doing the foundation subjects but the way we’re doing it is much more focused on how lawyers in practice handle cases in contract or tort, or transactions in property, or the establishment of instruments and facilities based on equity and trusts.”
In the longer term, what happens to law degrees depends on what happens in the
legal market, and prospective students need to keep an eye on the crucial element of employability.
Dr John Russell of London South Bank University (LSBU) is trenchant in his view that the traditional approach does not ensure employability.
“Traditional black letter law degrees are not fit for purpose. Teaching in rarefied terms about abstract problems involving imaginary people doing unfeasible things without context or merit is not what students need.
“For the majority of students the traditional route of LLB to LPC and then on to a two-year training contract is not a statistical likelihood.
“It’s not responsible for universities to send students blindly down a route towards becoming a solicitor and not challenge students paying over £12,000 for LPCs on the assumption that they’ll get a training contract, when statistics show there are 15,000 law graduates chasing 4,000 training contracts a year.”
He adds that the statistical reality is even more difficult for students from post-’92 universities such as LSBU, which has promoted wider access to university education for more than 23 years.
“This is a particular concern for us when many of our students don’t have a parent who is a lawyer, they are without existing connections with the law at all and may be the first member of their family to go to university.
“Research shows that non-traditional students are discriminated against when training contracts are handed out.”
To counteract these difficulties, the university has launched innovations to improve employability, such as embedding a fast-track Chartered Institute of Legal Executives qualification within the LLB. Russell is also looking at introducing an accreditation to be a police station representative.
“It’s still the same LLB but with a combination of options to choose, so that when leaving university students will have the opportunity to get paid work immediately,” he says.
A further development is the opening of the university’s legal advice clinic as a public drop-in service. “People come in off the street with big bags of documents that have not already been processed and put into nicely shaped subject areas. It’s how law works in the real world. We’re located just up from Elephant & Castle, where there’s a massive local need for such advice. It also gives students enhanced employability through practical skills-building.”
Whatever the outcome of the education review and the changes in the legal market, one thing is certain. Law will remain one of the most popular degree subjects, opening doors not only into the legal profession but also the wider legal market and further afield.
“It teaches you how to think and with that you can do anything afterwards,” says Cownie.
The eightfold path
A replacement for the seven foundation subjects could be:
Students would need to demonstrate the ability to find a particular case as directed or in response to a legal problem. Once the case is found it would have to be read, understood both in itself and in the wider legal context, and then applied to novel situations.
Developing a command of primary and secondary legislation would require the ability to research relevant statutory provisions, to read, interpret and construe legislative language, and the ability to navigate statutes both internally across sections, parts
and schedules, and externally to see the relationship between different acts.
Legal theory would embrace a traditional jurisprudence module as well as any module enabling students to consider the values and principles of law. For example, freedom of contract and equality of bargaining power could be used as theoretical bases for learning contract or employment law.
Critical legal reasoning
Critical legal reasoning would include the ability to use theory to solve problems, to weave moral reasoning into hypotheses to solve problems, and to identify and use rhetoric.
Rather than an emphasis on professional conduct, which would remain the ambit of the LPC or BPTC programmes, students will be equipped to deal with the variety of ethically difficult situations that may come up during their careers.
Tutors and law firms often decry the level of care and accuracy in the use of legal language by students. Writing about law in a legally professional way would not be confined to coursework and exams but would also, for example, be taught and assessed by requiring students to draft a clause in a will for trusts.
Legal commercial awareness
Students should be required to show an appreciation of the business context of the legal services sector. Students would need to know and understand terms such as profit and loss, client relations and strategy, to name just a few.
Law is about avoiding and resolving disputes, so dispute resolution, whether through negotiation, mediation and litigation, would be an explicit requirement.