In April this year, the Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (Aclec) published its First Report on Legal Education and Training, stating its intention to stimulate debate rather than to set out a blueprint for change.
If nothing else, the committee achieved its intention – its radical proposals sparked widely diverging views from leading academics. The report's main proposals include:
a minimum of two years study of legal subjects for a qualifying law degree;
a 10-week Part II to the CPE and post-graduate diploma;
a common professional studies course with its own “exit qualification”;
“cut-down” versions of the LPC and BVC;
a two-stage in-service training (reduced for intending solicitors);
a quality assurance monitoring body.
This report has something for everyone: something to praise, something to criticise. But it touches on so many in the legal world that consensus will be difficult.
Aclec's proposed minimum two years study of “legal subjects” would be fatal to the 50-50, three-year joint honours degrees offered by many universities.
The grey area is the question of what constitutes a “legal subject”? The “we'll know one when we see it” approach is unlikely to satisfy the legal profession.
The suggested extension of the conversion diploma course for non-law graduates, adding a 10-week Part II to the equivalent of the CPE course, is also controversial. It represents a compromise between the model proposed by the Society of Public Teachers of Law and the views of the institutions which provide the present course. Aclec's proposal seems likely to please the SPTL and universities where a law degree is the sole route to a career in law.
But although it is intended to provide the conversion student with a broader legal knowledge, the change will not be welcomed by law firms and other employers who have valued the accelerated learning of the CPE and see their students as mature, motivated, high achievers.
The lack of wider academic legal knowledge does not seem to be a problem. But the proposed Part II will add fee and salary costs to employing conversion students and either delay recruitment or, if completed during a period of “in-service training”, involve disruptive absences from work and impair the quality of the training experience. If implemented, there is a danger that students and employers alike would see this stage as an unnecessary requirement to be complied with in the most painless way and lose sight of the intended educational benefits. Alternatively, employers may decide the extra cost of funding a conversion student is too great and turn exclusively to law graduates.
The extra cost burden to students without sponsorship and the effect upon geographical access to legal training should not be overlooked. In the present recruitment climate, few students without private means would risk incurring the extra cost of the conversion course without a secure offer of pupillage or training contract. If the diminishing CPE intake were to fall further, as seems likely, geographical access would suffer because reduced numbers would mean fewer institutions would offer the course.
While the flexibility of the Part II element offers some advantages, the student's ability to complete it at any stage before qualification seems to question its purpose and educational merit. Aclec does not see the Part II course as a necessary foundation to professional vocational education, but if the contents of the 10-week course are really a prerequisite to qualification, and therefore practice, it is difficult to see how they can be anything but a prerequisite to a course intended to prepare for professional training.
If the object of Part II is to ensure a wider legal knowledge for non-law graduates, it might be better to allow its completion to be spread into the post-qualification period as a form of extra, continuing education. To impose it before qualification smacks of serving time for the conversion student and protectionism for the law graduate.
Aclec has suggested a period of up to 18 weeks of common professional studies, leading to a new qualification provisionally named the Licentiate in Professional Legal Studies. The idea is not only to introduce a common element in the training of solicitors and barristers but also to create a new exit point by providing a student who decides not to pursue a professional career in law with a marketable qualification recognised by employers in legal services and other professions.
If this qualification were a success, it would help to prevent premature choices of career and specialisation and allow the providers of specialist Bar and solicitor's courses to concentrate solely on the needs of the professions without the distraction of ensuring the course has other benefits for those who are unsuccessful in finding pupillage or training contracts.
The difficulty will lie in finding agreement upon course specification and content. As existing providers of the LPC, the small number of institutions validated by the Bar Council to run the BVC will be well placed to inform this debate from an educational standpoint.
But the political dimension may be more problematical. While the professions may see merit in the idea of common studies, they might regard it with suspicion as the next step towards fusion.
Even if the issues can be settled, it seems likely that a negotiated specification would mean a rigid and highly standardised course, with little of the freedom of design, variety, flexibility and diversity Aclec says is necessary “to meet the changing needs of legal practice”.