Two Years or Not Two years: That’s Not the Question

The College of Law has launched a two year law degree. A number of journalists and bloggers have tackled the subject (Alex Aldridge, CharonQC and Neil Rose). It seems worth, however, adding my two penny worth.

Whether a two year course at about £18k is perceived to provide better value than a three year course at (up to) £27k depends significantly on who is paying the £18k, when and with what rate of interest. In public universities fees will be deferred and underwritten by the State. In private insitutions  £18k will have to be found pretty quickly and paid for at commercial rates of interest. There will be little or no time to work during holidays or in term time to pay of accumulating living expenses. Employability of these students will be key (to which I return).

The course seems to encourage even earlier specialisation than under the current system. Nigel Savage is quoted as saying, “”Unlike old fashioned theory-based law degrees, our course is all about preparing kids to be lawyers from day one”.  The College proposes to split the degree into two routes.  From the age of 18 or 19 students will be expected to choose between an interest in serving individuals or serving business.

The model is premised on the idea that sixth formers will enter the course with a predetermined ‘commitment’ to the legal profession. This is troubling for a number of reasons, but let me concentrate on one. Firms should worry about the open-mindness and intelligence of very young students who think they have a firm commitment to a particular professional destination. Research evidence suggests students with an early developed sense of their career destination will perform less well in their degrees than their more flexible counterparts. At that point in a student’s life, I would be prepared to say, it’s generally a bit stupid to be too certain.

More importantly such students should worry about their employability when they (or their parents) put down the £18,000. Firms are already reported to prefer GDL students to LLB. One reason may be they come with additional background gained in non-law disciplines. Another is that such students are, well, a bit more Oxbridge. The third reason is that they are older: three years older on average according to Law Society statistics. That extra maturity pays dividend in work placements, and training contract/pupillage interviews.  The fourth reason is that firms predominantly recruit law undergraduates from Russell Group universities.  The known unknown is whether the College can develop a reputation for quality students and a quality degree.  This leads onto my next point.

The College is seeking to package its course as ‘different’.  Trade school not old school might be an appropriate tagline and I don’t have an overwhelming problem with that in terms of the quality of the education likely to be provided. The market for LLB students is a big market and some competition around models of educational approach could benefit the long term health of the sector.

That said some of the differences are overstated. Markets do not function well on misinformation and it will be down to law schools to better articulate what they do.  Most undergraduate law degrees would already pride themselves on educating students in “analysis, problem solving, drafting and research” (skills the College claims for its own). Similarly, a number of law schools already tackle (I would dare to say more convincingly) the “how law affects society” elements of the discipline and I would also venture to suggest that no law school engages its students in, “simply studying [the law’s] historical development”.   A large part of the College’s claim to be different is built on a parody of ‘traditional’ law schools.  Similarly, all law schools, I would also venture, take employability enormously seriously. Anyone who understands anything about league tables can tell you why.

The real, intellectual difference between the College’s approach and the traditional law school’s approach is most likely between the College’s emphasis on teaching students in the practical utility of law. In the College this is likely to lead to solid practical teaching of solid practical legal skills in determinedly practical contexts. A bit of this is a good thing.  In fact, problem based learning is well established in some undergraduate curricula already.  But to concentrate on this to the exlcusion of everything else?  That gives me concerns.  Students are likely to be well trained in a mechanistic way but will they be inspired?  Will they understand the broader picture? Will they develop critical thinking skills?  The key thing that an excellent University education provides beyond the basics is those moments of inspiration, where the student’s world view may be genuinely transformed. These moments do not happen often, even for all students, but they do happen often enough – I believe – to provide the necessary spark that can ignite the intellectual appetite of students. This spark is necessary for life-long learning, commitment to professional ideals and to produce the truly exceptional individuals who can cope with transformative change. It is also necessary for the quality of university as a life experience.

This question has a greater significance than the immediate interests of students, law firms or law schools. Law as a discipline needs to evolve if it is to survive. Thinkers and researchers are vital to that process (both within Universities and within law firms). Universities have typically, but with many noble exceptions, remained too aloof from the concerns of practice. That needs to change.  Yet, importantly, law firms in the US and the UK have built their reputations on recruiting from the elite institutions that house (some of) these thinkers. Firms will be recruiting and competing internationally. What kinds of university student are they likely to want to recruit? Skills are important, but in a rapidly evolving world, skills mean more than the narrow ‘trade school’ and traditional law school skills of analysis, research and writing. Students need to be interested in, and engaged with, broader issues than those that shape practice if they are to be able to face the challenges that will confront the most successful lawyers in years to come. Great academics inspire their students and plant the seeds of ideas which can change the legal landscape. This is one of the reasons why I have already blogged on why a vibrant research base is vital to a discipline. There I said this:

“The University system is going global. The best way for the profession to seek to maintain and develop its status is to make sure its members are educated to the highest necessary standards, by the finest minds, based on the best knowledge about their discipline there is. To assist in this the professions should be investing in research on legal services and law, not sneering at it. Let me give you one example. Many [lawyers] will have been taught negotiation. Where does the knowledge behind that training come from? It was not handed down by judges or legislators. A large part of it will have come from the Harvard Negotiation Project. Where is the UK equivalent to this? Given the Bar’s reputation, an obvious opportunity is presented by a UK Advocacy Project, but who here is going to fund that? As student fees increase, reasons for the best English and Welsh students to begin their training in this country will diminish unless law schools compete with the global elite. This requires investment from the professions, a recognition that there some mutuality of interest, and opening up of the professions (and the academy) to serious research on legal professions and legal services.”

The absence of this link to a research base in law is probably the most dangerous aspect of two year degrees. I would expect most practitioners and students to be relatively unconcerned about the need for it. They will even, understandably, resent the implication that they should pay for it. Yet a profession founded on knowledge and reputation has to foster that knowledge base, as do the education institutions that serve both it and the broader public interest. The prestige and competitiveness of the professions and the quality of law as an institution depends upon it.  To sell themselves as elite, the professions will probably continue to choose young lawyers from the best mainstream institutions (and students will probably prefer to go there) but if they do not, they risk serious harm and an overly narrow view of what consitutes education.

6 thoughts on “Two Years or Not Two years: That’s Not the Question

  1. Excellent point about legal education being firmly embedded within an excellent research base. Sorry to say this but this is what the College of Law, having been there as a Gdland LPC student and LL.B graduate, lacks. It isn’t an academic instution. In fact far from it, I saw a certain lack of understanding of what an academia is about. It’s lecturers have no PhDs or even Masters most of them, having practiced law all the lives without a hint of academic qualifications, research papers or research degrees to their name.

  2. You’ve raised some good points for debate as to the possible purposes of an undergraduate law degree and the methodologies that can be employed. As you’ll no doubt know, a similar debate is taking place in the United States, where the ABA Standards Review Committee published the following statement: “The fundamental goal of legal education is to provide a sound program of legal education that prepares students for admission to the bar and effective and responsible participation in the legal profession”. At the AALS Conference in January, a large part of the debate on curriculum development was around your epithets of “old school” and “trade school”: how could law schools, which “major” in academic research and where success for teachers is measured primarily by publication, meet the increasing pressure from the profession to produce graduates with skills more aligned to that profession. The feedback from the profession is that, on the whole, graduates have very good black letter law knowledge and are excellent at legal analysis in the academic sense, but fall short in the wider practical application of the law.
    This wider knowledge or broader picture, as you put it, is at the core of our proposals for a professionally focused degree. The “professional” focus should not imply any diminution in academic standards: it is a degree with a focus on the knowledge and skills which graduates need to develop in order to be competent professionals, which are then further developed on the LPC or BPTC, and a training contract or pupillage. It is a focus found on other degrees which lead to professional status – medicine, veterinary science, architecture, etc.
    The broader picture is the understanding of the practical, contemporary contexts in which legal principles are applied in order to facilitate transactions, assert rights, allocate risk, seek remedies, govern businesses, define relationships, and so on. Providing this broader picture of the interests of individuals and businesses, and how practising lawyers use the law to maintain, develop and protect these interests is paramount to a deep understanding. I agree with you entirely that an excellent education should be one which provides the “spark [which] is necessary for life-long learning, commitment to professional ideals and to produce the truly exceptional individuals who can cope with transformative change. It is also necessary for the quality of university as a life experience.” I believe that providing students with the aforementioned broader picture will create an environment where the sparks will be in the form of “Now I see why…”, “So that’s how you can…”, etc. That is, understanding not only what the law is, and why the law is as it is, but, most importantly, how it can be used practically for the benefit of individuals and businesses. It is this latter relevance which can provide understanding and continued motivation to learn from the start. It can provide “life” education: an understanding of a subject as it applies to them and others in real, personal and financial terms, not solely as a subject of academic debate and research. This is important. The current artificial divisions between “academic”, “vocational” and “professional” often result in a different – and for many students confusing – context and focus on exactly the same legal principles at different stages of their learning. This does not serve to promote understanding. There is no reason why these divisions should continue to exist.

  3. An interesting post Richard, and I’m pleased that it provoked a suitably thoughful response from Scott Slorach, much of which I sympathise with. But there is one point that slightly troubles me in Scott’s defence (and it troubles me in a personal capacity – I’m not speaking for LETR or any of my co-researchers or funders here!). It is this:

    “I believe that providing students with the aforementioned broader picture will create an environment where the sparks will be in the form of “Now I see why…”, “So that’s how you can…”, etc. That is, understanding not only what the law is, and why the law is as it is, but, most importantly, how it can be used practically for the benefit of individuals and businesses.”

    I agree absolutely that degree level education needs to address the various dimensions of “what”, “how” and “why”, but I am concerned that what Scott offers is both (as that paragraph demonstrates) an elision of the how and the why, and a prioritisation of a particular how that may be ethically troubling. If we present law in a primarily vocational setting that emphasises the ‘use of law for the benefit of individuals and businesses’ that seems to fit rather well with the utilitarian ethos of the times, but it is not necessarily a “broader picture” – though it may be a different picture from what many law schools currently offer. But is it what our students, and society, actually needs a higher education to be? At the risk of over-simplifying the issues, does it prioritise the hired gun model of lawyering, by narrowing students’ understanding of the social context in which law operates to the horizon of the prospective client? Doesn’t a deeper and broader understanding of context require a grasp of the wider social functions and moral ambitions of law, and doesn’t the examination of that require some commitment to research and, dare I say it, a philosophy of both law and education (not just training)? Law degrees probably should engage with the practice of law more, but shouldn’t that be to shine a critical light on, not just hold a mirror up to nature?

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