Cherry-picking instead of improving for all

March 31, 2000

Access to the legal profession looks set to become even more exclusive - we urgently need a new blueprint, says Nigel Savage

Legal education is in turmoil. The recent decision by eight City law firms that they will recruit only lawyers who have completed a postgraduate legal practice course (LPC) delivered by an exclusive three-strong consortium (two new universities and a private-sector company) has created considerable uncertainty.

The decision by the law firms, led by Slaughter and May, limits access to the profession by students at schools outside the magic triumvirate. More worryingly, it is symptomatic of the choices thrown up by a system of legal education that is flawed at its foundations.

The firms, legitimately, worry that trainees do not understand the law properly and it is true that universities' drive to focus on legal skills has deflected law schools away from rote learning. The reality, however, is that the LPC is being blamed for the ills of the entire system. The fundamental distinction between legal education and training has become confused.

By most standards, legal education and law firms have enjoyed considerable success in the past 30 years. In 1945 there were 1,500 law students. Today, there are so many that the profession's regulators are not even sure how many there are: the best information is that there are more than 80 law schools, probably up to 350 qualifying law degrees and about 16,000 students emerging from the academic stage.

While the number of undergraduate students moving into the profession is on the decline, the popularity of graduate conversion courses is rising. So at one level the legal profession is becoming a postgraduate discipline.

The action by the group of eight to commission a special course raises a fundamental question: who will take responsibility for the education and training of lawyers from beginning to end?

The Law Society and the Bar Council should be the guardians of the system, but they have faced increasing pressures in reconciling their roles as regulator and trade union of a profession that is becoming ever more diversified.

How long will they be able to hold on to their self-regulatory powers in the face of a highly sceptical government? And one could ask whether either has fought to improve the system as much as they should have done. For the most part, they have washed their hands of the undergraduate degree and concentrated on the so-called vocational stage. In addition they have preserved a system of apprenticeship that every other sector has long since jettisoned.

In the United States, the American Bar Association provides regulatory protection for university law schools against declining funding; in England and Wales, the professional bodies have presided over a system where law schools have been used to attract high-quality students at relatively low cost. As a senior judge once remarked "vice-chancellors I like law faculties. They can seem the cheapest departments to run I and are easy targets for cutting costs."

At the same time as law schools have been expanding, so has the profession. Pressure from clients has made law firms more efficient, and a buoyant domestic and global economy has fuelled the expansion of commercial law firms.

But there are threats on the horizon: greater competition from US and continental firms in the global market; the arrival of accountancy firms in the market for legal services; the development of a new breed of in-house lawyer - far more commercial and questioning than previous generations. Such threats became a reality last week when the Office for Fair Trading announced an inquiry into anti-competitive practices in the professions.

Operating in the environment of a modern law firm requires a broader education and training than we are currently able to provide. It requires not least a keener business awareness. If we do not look more systematically at the system, our law firms will lose competitive advantage.

In the US, law is a postgraduate discipline by choice, and in Australia the trend is away from pure law towards genuine mixed degrees lasting four and five years.

My disappointment with the City firms is that they have not invested their resources in improving the system for all, but rather have chosen to try to disguise the deficiencies of an ailing system. What we need is a new blueprint for legal education along the lines of the American Bar Association's 1992 MacCrate report.

Nigel Savage, chief executive ofThe College of Law, is writing in a personal capacity.

* Is legal education a mess? Email us on soapbox@thes.co.uk

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