Not worth the paper
1 November 2002
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Complaints about the quality of law degrees are growing, leading to mounting concern that graduates are not adequately prepared for life in a City law firm.
Criticism ranges from the quality of trainees' analytical skills and research abilities to their knowledge of contract law.Roger Smith, director of training at the Law Society, recognises the complaint. "These views are coming consistently from sensible practitioners," he says. "Some might be nostalgic about legal education of the past but problems have been identified and we have to find out what can be done."
A new body, the Joint Academic Stage Committee, has been formed to replace the old Common Professional Examination Board. It is hoped that the new committee will be a much tougher taskmaster.
Smith says that the body, which comes into force in October, will be clear about the Law Society's educational demands. "We will be strict about what universities should provide, and set the standards," he says.
The committee will be made up of elected representatives from the Law Society, Bar Council, the Legal Practice Course (LPC), the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) and some academics. They will analyse legal education for pitfalls and have the power to implement new policies.
Government funding has already been highlighted as the cause of many problems. "There are tight restrictions on resources," says Smith.
The Further Education Funding Council places subjects in price groups to allocate money (see box). Law degrees, which can have more than 10 hours teaching per week, are in the lowest price group along with humanities, which can have fewer than four. Smith says that this lack of support is implicit in the decline in teaching standards.
"Because of funding there are fewer tutors, so tutorials have grown," he says. "Student workloads have decreased, possibly contributing to apathy, but law students must be hard workers."
The speculative nature of some courses has also raised alarm. Some students are failing to make the leap from the hypothetical to the real world of the business of law. "Law degrees do not focus on using theory," says Smith.
In the UK, only three universities offer law placements where book-learned skills can be applied: Brunel, Bournemouth and Nottingham Trent. "These courses are good because they put students in a working environment," says Smith. "But some find them very frustrating, especially if they do not want to be lawyers."
The variety of teaching methods offered, such as distance learning and placement periods, has made law degrees difficult to monitor but the new watchdog plans to tighten the reins on the different approaches.
Smith cites contract law as an example of an area in need of investigation. Many courses include it for one year, but Smith hopes to see that increase. "Contract law should be taught at the beginning and later in the degree," he says. "It is the [basis] of many laws and very important."
Nigel Bastin, head of training and education at the Bar Council, agrees that there are problems with contract teaching. "When I did my degree," he says, "contract was taught continuously for five years. Now it is fragmented in two and students do not get the same depth of knowledge."
Bastin blames modular systems for a fall in standards. "Modules do not give students the opportunity to look at law in context with other areas," he says. "They get bite-sized chunks of information which risk being forgotten as they move on to the next subject."
Resources are also an issue. Bastin says: "Barristers need to be good researchers but if a student does not have access to a library they cannot develop this skill."
He dismisses some law libraries as ineffective. "If you have a law library for a couple of hundred students they will develop research skills," he says. "But when the same library has to accommodate an increasing number of students, many will be deprived."
Bastin also hopes that the new group will look at student poverty and its relation to learning. He says: "The financial burden on students worries me. I am sure the brightest people are forced to go to local, less established universities to save money. Newer faculties benefit from cleverer students but the students may not be developing as well as they could."
Bastin is also disappointed that the universities have turned their back on the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education's independent review of the degree course.
The lack of support for the agency from the Government and 19 universities - members of the Russell Group, a self-selected group of research-focused universities - led to the resignation of the agency's chief executive John Randall in August. In a newspaper report he said: "Academic standards are not a private matter for universities - there is a real public interest in ensuring that courses in which young people invest three years and a great deal of money are worthwhile and lead to meaningful qualifications."
A senior source in legal education suggests that some law courses are set up purely as an income for struggling universities. "Law degrees are cash cows," he says. "Universities have no problem filling places - the problem is their motive for running them."
Director of professional development at the College of Law, Professor David Jabbari, does not believe that funds can be blamed for faltering graduates - he thinks the problem rests with choice.
"We need to get back to basics," he says. "A law degree does not have to be an expensive subject, all you need are the fundamental texts and most are available on the internet for free."
He is alarmed by the investigative work some universities encourage students to pursue. The Government ranks universities according to the quality of their research work, but Jabbari fears this leads to a trend for outlandish studies and the disappearance of traditional topics.
"Students are choosing new subjects such as critical legal studies in preference to areas such as Roman law, so they don't learn the basics from which most theories begin," he says.
When experienced lawyers come to Jabbari for management training, he has noticed gaps in their education. "The LPC and other courses are not here to summarise the law degree," he says. "If clients do not know who Justinian is, something is wrong [see box]. People should be encouraged to study areas that might be regarded boring."
"In Britain there is a lot of choice," he adds. "But we must ensure that the law degree does not become a free-for-all."
He points to the US as a good example of legal training. There, students take law as a three-year postgraduate course after completing an undergraduate degree of their choice.
Indeed, the prospectus for the University of Florida's school of law urges students to choose subjects such as arts or sciences before settling on law.
It says: "Sound advice for a student is to major in something you like [and not] find out you sacrificed learning about things that were of interest to you."
This seems to imply that the legal field is exempt from fun, but 22-year-old Chantelle Judge is convinced that studying law can be enjoyable.
Judge graduated from Leeds Metropolitan University in 2000 and completed the BVC at the Inns of Court School of Law this year.
"I enjoyed learning about how law affects lives," she says. Unlike Jabbari, she believes that traditional subjects can safely be replaced by modern alternatives.
"I was interested in how the law works today," she says. "So I picked issues relating to my specialist area. I do not think there is a need for subjects like Roman law now."
But she does think that more time should be spent teaching core subjects such as tort and contract law. "From the start, the LPC and BVC demand a strong understanding of these laws," she says. "Unfortunately, most students are taught them in the first year, so they need to be relearnt three years later."
Lara Maroof graduated from the London School of Economics in 2000. She says there was a lack of understanding between staff and pupils. "When it came to public law I felt I was being thrown in at the deep end," she says. "The lecturers expected us to have levels of knowledge we had not yet gained.
When I started the BVC course I still didn't know the basics, like the structure of government and how it worked."
She believes that this does indicate a problem with law degrees, but adds that most of these issues were resolved in her postgraduate year.
David Roberts from Evans & Payne, a firm of criminal solicitors based in Cardiff, graduated from Cardiff University in 1997. He thinks that lecturers should give undergraduates more advice on obtaining training contracts.
"I had no idea how difficult they could be to get," he says. "It took me two years to find a law firm. Students should be warned much earlier in their degree."
"People should be encouraged to study areas that might be regarded boring' - David Jabbari
The Joint Academic Stage Committee clearly has its work cut out if it wants law graduates entering training contracts to be better prepared. Its two primary tasks must be to put pressure on those in control of the purse strings to improve the resourcing of law degrees and to facilitate change to the syllabus itself. The profession is watching with interest to see what impact the new committee will have.
The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) puts subjects into costed bands and uses various formulas to determine how money is allocated to universities. It ascertains the number of students at an institution and the subjects taught. A block grant is then given to the institutions which distribute it along HEFC guidelines. If a university does not attract as many students as it predicted, the HEFC can reclaim part of the grant. As you can see from the table below, law falls into the bottom grade, despite the fact that it requires as much as two-and-a-half times the amount of teaching that other subjects in the same grade require. As a result, in order to meet budgets, law students' class sizes are much larger.