Legal Education Foundation announces “prosaic” first grants

The first round of grants dished out by a gound-breaking £200m fund aimed at studying the legal profession received a lukewarm welcome this week, with one critic describing the awards as “prosaic” and “cosmetic”.

The Legal Education Foundation – which was born out of last year’s sale of the then College of Law (26 January 2012) – announced some £1.5m in grants to six organisations. The foundation said it hopes to be awarding between £4m to £5m by the time it is fully operational in the middle of 2014.

The biggest winner in this week’s grants was the Pathways to Law scheme, which promotes legal profession career opportunities to students form socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Pathways is to benefit from £1.2m spread over three years.

The five other organisations are to receive grants ranging between £15,000 to £45,000 for this year. They are: the Advocacy Training Council for a scheme on dealing with vulnerable witnesses; the Galleries of Justice, which uses historical buildings to teach children about the law; online judgment database, the British and Irish Legal Information Institute; the Law Centre Network, which provides free advice to the public; and LawWorks, a project promoting pro bono work within the legal profession.

But several leading legal sector academics who asked not to be identified said they had hoped for more from the foundation’s first foray into giving. One described the recipients as representing the “motherhood and apple pie end of the legal profession”, while another expressed disappointment that the foundation had not been “bolder” in its first choice of grant recipients.

“So far it looks to be a fairly cosmetic exercise, such as financing training projects at law centres. The money involved will only have a limited impact on access to justice issues. It looks at bit prosaic and lacking in imagination,” said one commentator.

Despite being set up more than six months ago, the foundation is still hunting for a chief executive. There is also speculation that it wanted to stymie potential criticism that its funding efforts had stalled during that on-going recruitment exercise.

“It probably wanted simply to put money out there to some good causes and to get themselves going,” said a source.

However, there was also guarded backing for the new body.

“The legal profession is facing profound change as is legal education – so there is a need for hard hitting research,” said Richard Moorehead, director of the Centre for Ethics and Law at University College London. “The foundation is in a fantastic position to fill that gap. If we view the law as a knowledge industry, then the foundation can position the UK as a thought leader in knowledge generation both nationally and internationally. So the foundation should be thinking ambitiously about ways of developing research projects that imaginatively look at legal services.”

There was wide agreement that the foundation’s biggest challenge will be how it moves on in the short term.

“The amount of money it has could make a real difference to the study of issues around legal profession diversity and the public’s access to justice,” said specialist legal education consultant Melissa Hardee, who is a former training partner at CMS Cameron McKenna and director of the legal practice course at City University’s Inns of Court School of Law.

“Much research needs to be done around the question of when and how you should encourage young people to consider careers in the law,” said Hardee. “It’s not enough just to give out scholarships. It’s much more complex than that. And we need to move beyond the simplistic analysis of the issues.”

At the grants’ launch, foundation chairman and former Allen & Overy senior partner Guy Beringer said: “The foundation will seek to support a wide variety of organisations and will cast its net widely to cover all forms of legal education in many different social, professional and academic settings.”

The deadline for applications for the foundation’s next round of grants is this October.