Law scholars object to minister’s ‘selfish’ charge

Justice Secretary says universities are putting their interests first by offering too many law places. Hannah Fearn reports

September 30, 2009

A claim made by Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s Justice Secretary, that law schools north of the border are putting their interests above those of their students has been dismissed as “ill-informed” by Scottish academics.

Minutes from a meeting between Mr MacAskill and the Law Society of Scotland, released under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that just one in four law graduates in the country find a job in the profession.

The figures prompted the minister to attack universities for continuing to offer so many law places despite a dearth of jobs and training contracts in the sector. Last year, 700 LLB graduates with a diploma in legal practice fought for 592 training places in Scotland. This year, the number of contracts is expected to be lower still.

The minutes of the meeting say: “[Mr MacAskill] was unimpressed by the attitude of those involved in the training of new solicitors and felt that education was currently driven by the needs of the universities rather than the needs of the students.

“There was a discussion about how universities should be listening to the profession and shouldn’t be raising students’ hopes and dreams in the current economic climate.”

Academics have hit back at the minister, who is himself a lawyer, claiming that he has misunderstood the purpose of a law degree.

Ken Swinton, convenor of the Committee of Heads of Scottish Law Schools, said law degrees were never designed to be purely vocational, but taught students transferable skills.

“They offer a broad range of subjects in the liberal-arts tradition,” he said. “For many years, an increasing number of law graduates have gone on to pursue worthwhile jobs other than as solicitors or advocates.”

He rejected Mr MacAskill’s claims that universities are focusing on their own needs by recruiting more students than can reasonably find work post-graduation. As government funding for each student is the same across the social sciences, there is no incentive to lure students into law rather than another discipline, he said.

“There is no guarantee that any graduate will find work in a particular profession, and this is made clear to students from the time they enter the programmes offered by all institutions. We sympathise with those graduates who are presently unable to fulfil their aspirations, but this is a particularly difficult time for graduates of all disciplines.”

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