Monday, 7 March 2011

Is the law degree fit for purpose?

Recently the question was asked, is the law degree fit for purpose? My first question was who’s law degree, or from which institution? All law institutions vary in their methods of teaching. Yes, they all teach relatively similar content, but the manner in which it is taught varies wildly. So to address this question, we must first explore several other questions, which will hopefully bring us to draw similar conclusions. Being a student, the answers that are given here are from a student’s perspective, rather than a graduate’s or practising professional’s perspective

The first question to ask is; does the institution encourage you to think pro-actively rather than just looking at past case law? As much as past cases are relevant, which they of course are very relevant, but when asked a legal question, is your first reaction going to be to look up past case history, or to think critically about the case and question everything yourself and then refer to past cases? At Birkbeck, they encourage us to constantly think critically about everything we are taught. We are encouraged to challenge and discuss what we are being taught, which will ultimately produce well-rounded graduates. To take a quote from the Open University’s website illustrating this point that not all institutions are the same, the problems they have encountered have been of this very nature, “The problem with lawyers is that when they are confronted with a problem, their training and instincts are to look for a precedent from the past rather than to confront and embrace new ideas and thinking.”

How prepared or equipped has the university made you? Graduates today, having finished their Qualifying Law Degree (QLD), feel quite nervous about the next step. There is probably a fair bit more that can be done by the universities in terms of preparing the student for the next step. There are of course advisers available to go to for guidance on what to do next, but universities are missing a trick here, questions like which career path to follow, billing trends, client expectations and other law-related issues, these sorts of questions could be worked into the syllabus, possibly towards the end of the degree. These would address all the different options available to a student, and the reality of it all.

In terms of legal knowledge, I believe the degree is very comprehensive, in terms of real life experience, or teaching, it is lacking. Larry Kramer of Stanford University is spearheading a change in this area of study, and in fact the legal profession as a whole, as he can see the changes that have happened just in the last twenty years, and what needs to be done to address those changes, “Twenty years ago, most lawyers would have scoffed at the idea that profitability—much less profits-per-partner—should be the measure of success for firms, but that’s where we are: to be bigger, to pay higher salaries, to bill more hours, to open more offices, to be more profitable,”.

Back in 2009 the Law Society was seeking the legal profession’s views on the quality of the existing QLDs. The consultation came after a number of doubts were voiced regarding the quality of incoming trainees and newly qualified solicitors.  The Law Society Gazette reports Baroness Deech as saying that  many aspiring lawyers taking the BPTC are “wasting their money” and are not up to it and that “There are too many people on the course who shouldn’t be there. We need to give a signal to those who aren’t up to it that they’re wasting their money.” There are concerns both for qualifying barristers as well as solicitors. With the looming university charges being raised, these are real, hard, honest questions that need to be addressed. If there are such strong feelings as to the quality of the students coming out of universities, then there must be something that is being missed.

It is at this point, that the answer becomes clear. The law colleges producing the students with their QLD’s here in the UK need to look at what is being done in Stanford in the US, and follow their lead. Investigate what is lacking, what is causing people like Baroness Deech to be so appalled at the quality of students being produced, and address those issues. Yes, it will cost money, but ultimately it will also save money, in terms of fees being wasted by students with no prospects in the industry. All the hard work and finances that are being poured into these QLD’s need to be for something that will ultimately benefit the student, if they are not up to the mark, for whatever reason, these reasons need to be addressed.


VC said...

There are probably a lot of degree courses with the same problem - changing a syllabus takes time and investment, which is a problem for universities with tight budgets. I would also shy away from suggesting that big business invest in the development of new degrees, because universities have more to offer than just churning out workers and there would be a conflict between what's best for the personal development of students and what's best for business, which would prefer people to be as uniform as possible. This talk by Ken Robinson suggests some changes to traditional learning that might be interesting for this debate: (and the animation is cool too...) :)

smith said...

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