In the impending shake-up of legal education, quality remains paramount

Professor Michael Gunn, head of Nottingham Trent University’s Law School and head of the school’s research and scholarship function

Standards in the delivery of legal services are on the agenda as never before. We began this year with the publication of Sir David Clementi’s proposals (December 2004) to revamp the way lawyers are regulated. The proposed reforms promise to liberalise the UK legal market as no other in the world, opening up ownership of legal practices to non-lawyers for the first time. “Providing the system is properly regulated, competition is a good thing,” said Lord Falconer when announcing the reforms. Concerns have been voiced, though, about how precisely the profession will protect standards in this new environment. The devil will, of course, be in the detail, we are told. Indeed it will.

The Clementi Report was followed smartly by the Training Framework Review (TFR) episode. A minority report was produced, voicing some concerns about the potential for the dropping of standards. The outcome was the decision by the TFR to opt for a 12-week consultation on its proposals.

Against this backdrop, The Lawyer’s article on the importance (or otherwise) of Law Society ratings of LPC providers was timely indeed (16 May 2005 : ‘When “excellent” is less than brilliant in the war for ratings’). The article was very insightful and raised some interesting points, particularly around the value of how the Law Society goes about the ratings process.

Clearly, this is a time of change – and change is arguably long overdue. However, in the desire to bring the legal profession – and world of legal education – into the 21st century, are we in danger of losing sight of the value of scholarship? It is right that courses are client-focused and commercial; that legal education providers are rightly addressing the commercial needs of their law firm clients in the context of an increasingly competitive marketplace; and that training has a clear role in helping law firms adapt to all this change. But let us not forget that the quality of teaching must still be the bedrock of any kind of training offering.

In discussing the merits of the structured LPC, Nottingham Law School (NLS) has gone on record with its view that there is too much rigidity and prescription in the requirements set out by the Law Society and that this is one of the main barriers to innovation.

As to how the Law Society conducts its monitoring visits, certainly they can be time-consuming. However, in NLS’s experience, the qualities it looks for in the visits in fact match up pretty well with what law firm clients, large and small, tell us they are looking for, for example: how the course is resourced; what the teaching quality is like; whether the materials and the scenarios reflect reality; whether it stretches the students; whether the whole thing looks well put together and has that feeling of confidence.

Legal education has come a very long way over the last decade. The modern law schools have all, collectively, done an enormous amount to improve the professionalism and commercial focus of legal training. The major players, such as BPP Law School, the College of Law and NLS, can all take some credit for improving the general standard and commercial focus of legal education.

This has been very good news for the profession and, ultimately, for its end-users. There is more change ahead and NLS will continue to argue for modernisation. Certainly, it is essential to respond to market demand and adapt our training programmes as the needs of our law firm clients change; but when it comes to a debate on the quality of education and scholarship, let us not forget that here it is our role to lead.