Save law from universities' noose

May 17, 1996

The Lord Chancellor's report marginalises the influence of the legal profession, says Nigel Savage

The first report of the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee on legal education and training is a great disappointment. It is the product of a series of compromises struck to placate various interests in legal education. These include both the old and new universities; the Society of Public Teachers of Law; the Law Society; the Bar Council and legal practitioners. The only consolation is that if the two previous reports on legal education are anything to go by its influence will be limited.

The centrepiece is the recommendation that all young lawyers undergo a common element of vocational training. The arguments in favour are powerful; students should not be forced to make premature career choices between different branches of the profession; it would improve mutual understanding between barristers and solicitors; it would assist in the development of common ethical and professional standards and there would undoubtedly be cost savings.

Some form of common training is inevitable, especially once the Bar Council's policy of authorising additional providers of the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) has been implemented. The only argument is how best to achieve it, by committee, or by a natural process almost without the professions noticing. When the qualifying vocational course for solicitors, the legal practice course, is run side by side with the BVC in the same law schools the common element will be quickly identified and resourcing issues will force the pace of commonality.

The committee also recommends that universities should have greater freedom to design their own degrees, building on the diversity and flexibility of the system. Nothing horrifies me more than the idea of giving universities greater autonomy. The cry from the Society of Public Teachers of Law was "please trust the universities".

The facts are that the professional bodies in legal education have been remarkably liberal, allowing enormous flexibility and scope for innovation. The much criticised prescriptive attitude does not stand the test of close scrutiny. I would be happy to support the cry "please trust the law schools" because in partnership with the profession many of the aspirations articulated in the report could be achieved. Much of the damage caused to the law degree and to law schools in general has been as a result of constraints imposed on law schools' freedom by their university masters.

The classic example of this is in the case of modularisation and semesterisation, which has been imposed on law schools against their better judgement. There is a growing body of evidence to support the proposition that the "emperor's suit" of modularisation and semesterisation is having a damaging effect on legal education. In an excellent article in the Law Teacher (1995 vol 29, No 3) Harris and Tribe set out the result of research which supports the view that the consequence of the imposition of these twin processes has been the creation of an assessment culture that has placed substantial hurdles in the way of a learning culture.

Harris and Tribe argue that their results "raise disturbing questions about the nature and quality of undergraduate legal education . . . at the present time semesterisation, especially when combined with modularisation, appears to create the very conditions in which the students learning experience may be seriously adversely affected. There is a real risk that this type of structure significantly affects both course delivery and student learning with corresponding implications for students' achievements".

So much for leaving it to the universities!

A measure of the success of the old university lobby is the fact that the committee has deleted one of the aims of a law degree set out in its consultative paper. This required that the law degree "contain enough conceptual and substantive material for vocational training to be comparatively short". It is surely one thing to say that the academic stage should not aim to be a preparation for practice, it is quite another to remove it completely from the list of aims.

The authors of the final report simply state that where those offering training for the profession find the students lack knowledge, they can provide "add-ons". If ever the president of the Law Society needed a convincing argument in favour of an entry test as a requirement for taking the legal practice course, it is to be found in these paragraphs.

In respect of the Common Professional Examination Graduate Conversion Course, the committee comes up with a bizarre compromise between the view expressed by the Society of Public Teachers of Law, that is hostile to the 36-week course, and the view put forward by the providers of these courses and a great many law firm recruitment partners, that the students produced possess a sophisticated range of skills and are well able to cope with the greater workload.

It is proposed that students on conversion courses have a longer exposure to the discipline of law. They should therefore be required to undertake an additional ten weeks of full-time study "at any time before, during or after the vocational stage". Surely this is a case of putting the cart before the horse. At least the "add-ons" the committee proposes, to make up for the undergraduate law student's lack of knowledge, are to be provided before the student tackles the LPC or BVC. The conversion course students must carry their deficiencies into legal practice.

In respect of quality assurance there is a provision that a new audit and assessment body assume responsibility. In particular, it is suggested that the professional bodies further diminish their influence by devolving quality assurance to the new body. There is however no reference to how the College of Law, which provides over 50 per cent of places on the qualifying vocational course for solicitors, and the Inns of Court School of Law, which provides 100 per cent of vocational training places for barristers, should fit into the quality assurance model. In the political climate within both professions it is naive to suggest a further erosion of their authority.

Having put forward their proposals (which, incidentally, will undoubtedly add to the costs of legal education), there is a recommendation for increased resourcing for law schools. It has to be said that in the current environment it is probably unlikely that further public resources will be made available to fund legal education, lawyers being only marginally more popular than estate agents.

There is, however, a strong case for law schools receiving a higher proportion of a university's block grant. But how can this be achieved? How can law schools prevent universities carrying out dawn raids to pull in additional highly qualified students for no additional resources to compensate for shortfalls in other disciplines? One solution might be to look at new and radical institutional structures such as Nottingham Law School Ltd, the limited public company introduced by Nottingham Trent University.

There is irony in the report's suggestion that the profession could do more to facilitate funding, this in a report that, for the most part, seeks to marginalise the influence of the profession on legal education.

Nigel Savage is chief executive designate of The College of Law.

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