Another step in the legal education debate

South Bank Uni recently hosted a legal education debate with a host of speakers from the LSB, SRA, ILEX, the BSB, the College of Law and, er, me. You can read about it and see the recording of the event here. I caused some controversy by suggesting the debate was being driven by the recession and the mismatch between training contract and pupillage places and LPC/BPTC places in particular rather than evidence based concerns about legal education. That is, the debate is being driven by a well-founded concern for the welfare of students and the (understandable and not entirely unjustified) concern of the profession to manage levels of competition rather than an evidence-based concern about the quality of that education.

This raised the hackles of Di Lawson, the sparky and impressive head of education at the SRA, who said there was heaps of evidence but – if I may continue in the spirit of good natured knockabout we engaged in- did not point any of it out. She did however make a series of good points about the need for a review. The long passage of time since the last major review (although everyone seems to have forgotten the Law Society’s Training Framework Review) and the significant and ongoing evolution of legal services markets being the two best ones.

Where I think there was broad agreement was that the Legal Services Act was likely to lead to reasonably profound changes in the nature of legal work and that would drive changes in legal education. I actually think there is a risk in overstating this: are what lawyers need to know and what they need to do going to change dramatically as a result of these changes? I am not so sure or rather, I think where it is most likely to have an impact is at the post qualification level, but that may be a debate for another day.

My attempt to think about the LSA led me to divide lawyers into three groups:

  • the doers (rather like most lawyers now, but perhaps consisting of larger numbers of paralegals and working within stronger systems and technological architecture);
  • a middle group of what I’d now call ‘systems lawyers‘ who design and manage those systems (supervisers, professional support, system designers and managers); and.
  • the thinkers – the one’s who work out how their services can best meet their client’s needs (again this might involve a range of roles: leaders, innovators, reasearchers).

Like all such schemes (particularly those dreamed up on the train down to London) these are just heuristics: my starting points for discussion. It is worth noting that not all of these skills will be found in lawyers. Concentrating on legal education might be a mistake but it might also mean concentrating on the doers and, perhaps, the thinkers.  The thinkers, in particular, but all lawyers on  hopes, will need to think about value and the wider world that lawyers serve.  I’d like to see firms and professions take a much more rigorous and imaginative approach to understanding the value of what they provide and what underlies that value. When it is suggested, for instance that what is wrong with undergraduate legal education is that most undergraduates have not seen a contract, a little part of me dies.  I have a rather different response. Most lawyers do not understand, save in the most basic terms, what is the value of a contract. Contracts are about agreement of course, about consideration: but they are also about allocating risk and influencing behaviour. How many lawyers really understand how effective their contracts are at doing that, I wonder? How many academic lawyers? Not many. In an increasingly global market for lawyers and legal educators there is real advantage to be gained by both law schools and professions in developing this kind of agenda: which is both intellectually important and of real benefit to the legal services sector. As I have said before, we need to think about where the knowledge that underlies legal education comes from and we have to attend to the health of that knowledge generation. The success of our Universities, our students and our law firms depends upon it.

4 thoughts on “Another step in the legal education debate

  1. I agree, Richard, training and issues of professional supply and demand shouldn’t be wagging the educational dog…. There is a tendency for the SRA along with others like the College of Law to turn legal education into a branch of the training industry, which would only impoverish us.

  2. Another good post Richard, I like your three categories and it is the latter two where legal education institutions really need to focus on, the key to that is evaluating the appropriate learning approach to develop those skills, too much of legal education is centred around knowledge transfer and acquisition, this is not enough to cater to your two higher levels.

    1. Jon,

      Not sure it’s a hierarchy in my mind – or rather dooers might exist across the hierarchy (system driven, narrowly focused paralegals to bespoke advisers/litigators/advocates), but I do agree that the focus has been too much on transfer and aquisition of knowledge and one type of knowledge (as advocated by the ‘they just need more law’ brigade). For me it is partly about stronger skills (by which I don’t particulaly mean (say) interviewing or letter writing or drafting) but things like critical thinking, problem-solving and partly about different knowledge systems (law student’s understanding of facts and context is shallower than I would like, for example as is their grasp of values).

  3. Very interesting. I so agree with you that undergraduates need to understand the value of contracts rather than focusing unduly on legal issues. The contract is there to manage risks for a set budget. For example, for certain start up businesses it may be better use of their legal funds to adopt a practical approach to the initial documentation and produce something that is good enough rather than combing through it to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s and pick up every conceivable legal point that might be relevant. If on the other hand you are dealing with a substantial business then attention to all the minutiae would be appropriate and the budget would hopefully be available for such a comprehensive approach.

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