Rethinking the Law School: Education, Research, Outreach and Governance, by Carel Stolker

Is legal training fit for purpose? A global study asks all the right questions, says Caroline Hunter

March 19, 2015

This is indeed a good moment for the heads of the many law schools in the UK to ponder the future of their school. The research excellence framework results are just in. The lifting of the cap on student numbers in England means that some law schools are in the process of considerable expansion. In England and Wales, the Legal Education and Training Review published its final report in June 2013 based on “the most substantial review of legal education and training” since 1971. In light of this, the Solicitors Regulation Authority seems to be suggesting a move away from the certainties of the “qualifying law degree” to some form of competency-based framework.

Carel Stolker’s personal and very readable book provides a good starting point for that thinking. It purports to have global coverage, and there is indeed some mention of law schools in parts of the developing world, but this is only brief and the focus is really on institutions in North America and Europe, with occasional forays into Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. But even with this narrower focus the book covers a lot of ground – some of which will be familiar, some less so – and draws on a breadth of writing on higher education generally and legal education specifically, along the way weaving in Stolker’s own experience of running a large Dutch law school. On occasions, the fact of his having been a dean and subsequently the president of Leiden University means that he slips into a managerialist frame, eg, on leadership.

Rethinking the Law School, as its title promises, does much to get the reader thinking about law schools’ purpose and mission. Those designing law degrees have to grapple with their dual nature, both as the study of an academic discipline and as training for a (potential) professional career. This is true throughout the world. There are, however, significant differences between law schools. Some of these derive from differing higher education funding models and access practices, and Stolker frequently appears to bemoan the fact that European law schools do not adopt an Anglo-American model of restricted entry and smaller class sizes. He may well have a point. The thought of entry cohorts of more than 1,000 students per year, with a large proportion of them failing to make it to graduation and many progressing at their own pace, is certainly a horrifying one for those unfamiliar with such a system, and perhaps explains some of the pedagogic differences.

While the book’s subtitle indicates the breadth of its coverage, some of the choices may seem idiosyncratic. In the chapter on pedagogy there are several pages covering the growth of massive open online courses, yet virtually nothing about what I would consider much more important developments, namely clinical legal education and problem-based learning (PBL). The growth of some form of clinical experience for law students has been one of the most notable developments in UK legal education, with a recent survey finding that 70 per cent of law schools offer some form of pro bono or clinical experience. The omission of any discussion of PBL is also surprising, given the comparisons Stolker draws with medical education, where it is used extensively. Indeed, in the chapter on educating students, his closing example of a case relating to the publication of topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge in Closer magazine cries out to be made into a PBL problem.

But Rethinking the Law School does not claim to be anything other than a personal view, so it is perhaps not appropriate to quibble with the choices its author has made. Some if not all of the questions Stolker says that he was asked as a law dean at Leiden – “Why so national, why so monodisciplined, and why such a strange publication culture? Where are your rankings? Why so little external funding?” – are ones that almost all law school heads have to face.

Stolker does much to explain some of the particularities (or should I say peculiarities) of law schools, and poses many questions we all need to ask about the ways such institutions currently work. Ultimately he does not have a blueprint for the rethought law school, although he is clear that we need to be more international in our focus. As law and lawyers become more transnational, so too must the law school.

Rethinking the Law School: Education, Research, Outreach and Governance

By Carel Stolker
Cambridge University Press, 469pp, £75.00
ISBN 9781107073890 and 9781316121634 (e-book)
Published 11 December 2014

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