Laying down the law

The advent of the UK's first private law school has reignited debate about whether a law course should comprise liberal education or commercial training. Hannah Fearn hears the case for and against

April 10, 2008

We've broken the mould," says Peter Crisp, dean of the BPP Professional Education Law School. It is only a matter of months since BPP became the first profit-making organisation to be granted the power to award degrees in the UK, but already Crisp believes the move marks a major development in the teaching of law. "Where we have trod the path, others will follow. It's going to change higher education."

BPP, which will begin awarding masters degrees for its legal practice and Bar Vocational Courses this academic year (2007-08), has entered an already crowded marketplace. According to the UK Centre for Legal Education, applications to law programmes across the UK's universities are rising. In February, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reported that law was the most popular subject upon application to university. Between 2006 and 2007, the number of applications increased by 4.9 per cent. But BPP Professional Education believes it has unique selling points in the profile of its students and in its relationship with leading City law firms. All students are graduates, taking on postgraduate training, and BPP follows a curriculum that produces the kind of professionals that the law firms say they want.

"That's what makes us distinctive," Crisp says. "We're at the heart of government policy, which is focusing on an education system that's employer led and delivering what employers need at every level. Our market is not the 19-year-old school-leaver. Our students are those who have made a decision that they want to have a career the law. We're not trying to replicate the undergraduate experience."

As those comments might suggest, the teaching of law is at something of a crossroads. Although applications are on the up, only half of LLB graduates go on to practise law, and BPP's careful focus on professional training has fired debate over whether the law is an academic or a professional practice.

Whereas the undergraduate LLB and many masters programmes in law offered by universities take a traditional, liberal approach to the subject, teaching its history, politics and ethics, BPP's courses are professional training programmes offering the particular skills required to practise as a solicitor or barrister.

Crisp says he sees a place for both in higher education, but he insists that law firms and chambers offering training contracts and pupillages to young lawyers look positively on candidates with a broad education - namely, those who have studied another discipline as an undergraduate and come to the law at postgraduate level.

Such discussions have clearly begun to worry the legal academic establishment. In a recent issue of Counsel magazine, Christopher McCrudden, professor of human rights law at the University of Oxford, defended the professional role of the LLB, stating that it still offered more to today's aspiring lawyer than an alternative arts or humanities degree.

"Part of the explanation of why British barristers have such a high reputation worldwide, I believe, lies in the skills that many derive from their university legal training," he writes. "A more important benefit, in my view, is the greater understanding that studying law as a scholarly enterprise brings to the aspiring barrister.

"I do think that the profession as a whole would be poorer if the proportion of barristers having studied law in a good university faculty declined further," he concludes.

McCrudden may make a valid point, but outspoken critics at the Bar have claimed that although the LLB is technically a "qualifying course", allowing graduates to skip part of their subsequent legal training, it is not robust or comprehensive enough to prepare students for a career in law. Some suggest that LLB course content is guided by academics' research interests rather than the subject areas most useful to future lawyers. One barrister involved in legal education says he has seen LLB graduates who have left university with no understanding of property law.

Acknowledging this gap, a recent report from the Working Party on Entry to the Bar, chaired by Lord Neuberger, recommended closer links between the profession and law tutors and lecturers at UK universities.

Tracey Varnava, associate director of the UK Centre for Legal Education, says the private-sector providers in professional higher education further complicate the picture.

A gentlemen's agreement between the Law Society and the Bar Council, known as the Joint Statement on Qualifying Law Degrees, sets out which aspects of practical law should be included within a law curriculum in order for it to be deemed a qualifying course.

This agreement could be upset by the influx of additional private providers that BPP and others are predicting. "There may not be equivalence between the level of academic rigour between one (course) and another," says Varnava, adding that there is the potential for confusion among employers.

Varnava says that the question of what constitutes a legal education is "a bit of an old chestnut", although she admits that it has become more important. "Universities need to be more robust about the value that they bring as far as employers are concerned. Generally speaking, most law schools in universities believe that they're offering a social science degree. It's a liberal education; we're not actually training students to become lawyers.

"In fact," she adds, "it's not really appropriate for the law degree itself to address skills training. That's a position that quite a lot of academics hold, and they do get rather annoyed at what they see as interference by the Bar Council and the Law Society."

Apart from the private sector, a number of other factors have left law in a state of flux. These include the rise in student applications and the opening of new law schools at the University of York and a new legal campus in London for Nottingham Trent University. In some cases, the new schools represent an attempt to broaden participation in what is traditionally a middle-class profession. But universities are also attracted by a subject where demand is sufficiently high for them to select rather than recruit their students.

This may be a challenging time, but the UK Centre for Legal Education thinks it presents a chance to reconsider how law is taught. "I don't think it should be a threat," Varnava says. "It should be seen as an opportunity for law schools to think about their own provision and whether it's meeting the needs of the market. We'll go through a period of transition and then settle down and maybe some law schools will end up closing."

The law school at York opens its doors to students in September. Until recently, York had shied away from professional subjects, adhering to the vision of its founding vice-chancellor, Baron James of Rusholme, of an institution devoted solely to intellectual pursuits.

But Brian Cantor, who became vice-chancellor in 2002, conducted a review of York's academic centres, asking its professors which areas they believed the university should move into. Law came out on top, and by 2005 the decision had been taken to launch a new school, offering the LLB and a masters in international human rights law.

The school, headed by Stuart Bell, will have a professional focus but will also offer academic routes. The aim was to respond to the law debate by being flexible enough to cater both for students keen to practise law and for those more interested in studying from a broader liberal-arts perspective.

"I wanted to offer something different," says Bell, who decided that the way to gain recognition in a crowded market was to go and talk to those in the profession. "A lot of law schools are ambivalent about their relationship with the profession, and there is a strong current in legal academia that says we should not be just about producing professionals.

"We wanted to be sure that we were sending a very clear signal to students that we were giving the flexibility in the programme. For those people who know they want to practise, they are getting the opportunity to develop those skills from a younger age."

Initiatives with local firms, including partnerships, scholarships and bursaries, will link the course to the profession while also addressing the widening-participation agenda. These could also be powerful incentives in the battle for students, given the cost of studying law at postgraduate level with organisations such as BPP. It costs more than £14,000 to study full time for the one-year Bar Vocational Course with BPP in London.

"That will separate the universities from the vocational providers. I think that's what the majority of law schools will do," Bell says.

As new law courses open and the number of students rises, the Bar is acting to protect its reputation for excellence and to ensure that the quality of practitioners does not drop. Its working party report also recommended that research be carried out to see if any socioeconomic group would be affected if the minimum academic standard required to sit the Bar Vocational Course was raised to an upper-second-class degree.

But with the university-age population set to decline in coming years, universities may be forced to cut the numbers of law students in each academic year or to drop their entry standards to maintain numbers.

Simon Holdaway, head of the School of Law at the University of Sheffield, says a rolling review of curriculum and standards is essential, but he holds firm against reacting rashly to the advent of BPP in higher education. "We're all planning on the basis of this, but I don't think we have got to change our curriculum," he says.

Sheffield takes a very academic approach to law, teaching the subject in the context of ethics, business, criminology and international law. Holdaway, himself a criminologist rather than a lawyer, is sceptical about the need to build links with the law as a profession through changes in teaching methods. Projects such as students offering a pro bono service in disadvantaged communities are the best way of providing practical real-world experience.

"I think there could be some very good innovations that take account of practice and give you the skills of lawyering," he says.

Like many in academe, Holdaway is keen to protect law as an academic discipline from those in the legal profession and the higher-education providers such as BPP who wish to drive it in a more vocational direction.

"If you come and do law here, the people who teach you are the people who write the books. Our teaching is built upon our research. We don't train students, we educate them," he says.

Although debate about the purpose of a law degree and how best to teach the subject will continue as the higher education sector evolves, Holdaway remains steadfast. "If it is just a vocational education, we risk simply becoming training academies - and that's not what our universities should be," he says.

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