Law Review: Law Student Special – From here to eternity… (Part I)

While I always enjoy reading the enthusiastic PR  put out by law firms in the ‘Student’ editions of The Lawyer or Legal Week,  brimming with adverts from law firms; I sat down over lunch today at my local pub,  a glass of burgundy to my right and a fag to my left (I was sitting outside in the winter sun) and read  Student Law in Times 2.

Just turning the first page of the 12 page ‘pullout’ supplement brought my first reward.  The inside page, all of it, was devoted to an advertisement from The Institute of legal Executives with the quite remarkable headline.” Your best route to becoming a qualified lawyer”

I don’t have a scanner down here at the Staterooms-On-Sea, but it is quite remarkable what one can do with a mobile telephone these days, so I was able to capture an image of part of the advert.

I suspect that The Law Society and the Bar Council may take a rather different view of the best route to qualifying as a lawyer and, being realistic, the chance of a student, studying the long and excellent route to qualification through ILEX and being able to compete with the top quartile of graduates fresh from Oxbridge, Russell Group universities and the shiny temples of legal mammon that are the modern vocational law schools is… frankly… low.

I am a fan of ILEX as a route to qualfication though and not everyone wishes to be a City or BIG Law lawyer…thankfully…. so qualifying while you work and gain experience, reducing the debt burden, can make sense.

Frances Gibb, a seasoned and professional commentator on matters legal has been around for a long time and I mean that kindly because she brings a wealth of knowledge and contacts to her pieces. Frances Gibb kicks off proceedings under the headline The profession is shifting to a legal services market and advises…. “Be broadminded; there’s more to a legal career than simply qualifying as a solicitor or barrister..”

Frances Gibb reminds us of the warning put of last summer by The Law Society that students should think twice before embarking on a law career in the present economic climate. She asks if things have changed and provides some useful facts and figures, noting conflicting information and highlights the point that training places, some say, have dropped by as much as a third.  It does not appear to have dipped. Tim Pierce at the SRA says that 5751 places were offered in 2008-09 compared to 5732 for 2009-10 and that the current figure is 4510, but says that many are offered during the year, so the dip is ‘illusory.  There are, Pierce notes, more applicants so competition remains fierce.

The current state of the market really really depends on who you speak to. There is always an element of wish fulfilment. Listening to a podcast I did a year ago with Peter Crisp, CEO of BPP Law School, one could be forgiven for thinking that the credit-crunch was having absolutely no effect because, he reported enthusiastically, numbers on his courses had never been so high.  This was certainly true on the Bar Vocational Course.  We await (and I will be advised by the BSB when it comes out) the BSB report on BPP’s significant over subscription on the Bar Vocational Course which even The Times observed would net them a ‘cool million’ straight to the bottom line.  (I suspect 650- 750,000 quid is nearer the mark, recalling the very detailed budgeting done when I was involved in founding the school in the early 1990s)

If you have been reading Legal Week and The Lawyer you will have seen numerous stories about even the very biggest law firms cutting staff, partners and associates – but there are signs of resurgence now. It would be wise to read widely to get an accurate feel to the current market and the future.

The bottom line, no matter how you cut the figures is that roughly 14000 LPC qualified students this year are competing for 5700 training places according to figures in the Times. What of those from last year and the year before who have still not been absorbed into legal work?  They can’t all be flipping burgers or working as baristas at Starbucks?

And that leads nicely to the LAW SCHOOLS… all of them, not just the big boys, The College of Law and BPP Law School… and in this section, I include all the universities, all 104 of them providing law courses  in the UK, most of them in England & Wales

Nigel Savage, CEO of The College of Law opens the batting with a typically clever piece, deflecting attention from the vocational law schools to the first line universities with an excellent piece: Law schools: gatekeepers or cash cows? The main theme of the article, which I extracted from the Times summary is…Undergraduate law degrees have been neglected with law schools now isolated from the profession and exposed in the battle for resources.

The really juicy bits of Savage’s article are worth closer and objective analysis.

The inital rubric rehearses the changing nature of the profession but it is not long before the experienced Captain and centre forward takes the ball from an excellent corner kick and slams it into the back of the net with this… ” How are law schools coping? At the professional stage (Legal Practice Course or Bar Vocational Course) the sector has coped well with much innovation and flexibility. Until recently, the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have been vigilant in maintaining standards and publishing monitoring reports.”

The elegance of this one crisp paragraph contains three separate propositions: (1) The professional stage is separate from the academic stage (2) We, the College of Law have adapted to change – and they have.  See this excellent piece by Richard Susskind on the College of Law’s new e-learning initiative and (c) Savage, by my interpretation,  has a  dig at the the regulators – The Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

I have some experience of this given my background, but I think that Savage is right to raise this.  It does appear that the regulation of vocational law schools is perhaps not as rigorous as it was in the days of the fearsome and very professional Pauline Collins and her assessment teams (The 1990s). The inspections were rigorous, fair and thorough. In my role as the then CEO of BPP Law School (I resigned in 1997) I took them seriously, as did the other law school heads and their teams.   It is imperative, in my view, that all law schools, academic stage universities and professional stage providers,  are subject to external, objective, scrutiny. It is absurd that the SRA appears to be cutting back on monitoring visits, as Savage states in his article,  and both regulators should make all reports and assessment visits public so that students and others can assess the quality of the provision at each provider. The good law schools will pass muster, the poor ones won’t.

Savage then picks the ball up and runs straight towards the goal – the academic stage universities – with this… ” The key problem is the academic stage and the state of the undergraduate law degree. This should be the gatekeeper for the professional bodies; instead it has been hugely neglected with law schools now isolated from the profession and exposed in the battle for resources. Law is a cash cow for vice-chancellors. There are more than 68,000 students taking undergraduate law degrees, with 15,500 graduating each year. Law faculties used to be powerful centres in university administration. Today they have been absorbed into huge mega-faculties and resources are fought for at a low level. A robust regulator, therefore, is more vital than ever.”

There are 68,000 students studying law currently in universities and colleges. Not all will wish to go into a legal career (and many read law with no intention of doing so).  Law is an important service to the country.  It is not all City and Big Law – although that, as the President of The Law Society Robert Heslett told me in a recent podcast which I did for my Law Society Gazette series, is vitally important to the economic health of our country.

Many lawyers act for private clients doing valuable work in family law, in crime, in employment… the list is long.  Pretty well every field of human activity involves law and lawyers and it is important that we get the quality right.  The universities may well assert that it is not their function to turn out lawyers, that law is a philosophical discipline, a social science, a field of independent study.  They are right – but it is also the bedrock of knowledge needed by lawyers who do practise and if they wish to continue to provide quality education for students who wish to go into practice it is only right that they (as many do)  should tailor the versions of courses for these students to the needs of a modern profession and work with the profession and regulators. The universities would, of course, be free to do as they please with courses for students who wish to study law as a liberal social science. If the universities don’t adapt, if they don’t work with the profession (as many do happily and profitably)  then it would not surprise me if the College of Law, BPP law School and other providers  enjoying degree awarding powers and who are already experienced in providing high quality training like OXford Institute, Nottingham, Northumbria, Kaplan et al pick up the baton and run with it. While BPP Law School and others may have specialist City courses, they and most providers at this level cater for the full range of  training for lawyers in day to day practice.

Savage makes the point that universities are tending to absorb law departments into ever larger Faculties and that competition for resources is high. This is not good for the profession and the Bar Standards Board and The Solicitors Regulation Authority should be far more assertive with the universities and insist on specified student – tutor ratios, correct provision of resources, teaching time et al. The question is – have they the will to do so?   There is absolutely no credible reason why profitable law faculties should subsidise other departments to the detriment of quality standards in law and any attempt by the universities to divert resources from law to other disciplines, to subsidise them, should be resisted.

On that note, I will probably irritate some in the traditional universities – but there we are.  It  won’t be the first time.  Some years ago, at a conference, I suggested that we close 25 % of the law schools and give the money to the better law schools so they could increase the provision and offer more places.  That… went down well, as you can imagine.

In Part II I shall continue to examine student specific issues and  look at the future of legal education for barristers.  I shall also touch on the developing field of E-learning for law students.

Useful articles from The Times Student Law…

Learning at all hours of the day and night

Once, law lectures were given in fine halls. Now, students have the convenience and flexibility of electronic tutorials and online supervision

Why do state schools set the Bar so high?

Aged 10, Charlotte Pickering decided that she wanted to be a barrister. But teachers at her local comprehensive did little to encourage her dreams

Mentoring: more than a helping hand

Being matched with a volunteer from your favoured practice area can help you to network, write job applications – and be successful at interviews

It’s time to spread your wings

Don’t specialise too soon and be ready to change direction; that way you’ll still be in demand in the bad times as well as the good

Ten amazing courtroom film scenes

The real judiciary would not permit some of these classic capers. Particularly the delinquent lawyer who drank a bottle of poison in front of a jury…

New master’s degree in law and finance

The University of Oxford’s groundbreaking degree – already oversubscribed – aims to boost individual careers and legal expertise in the City

Lessons in juggling your workload

Would-be lawyers have always worked hard. But the findings of a new research report suggest that things might be getting more difficult . . .

Law schools: gatekeepers or cash cows?

Undergraduate law degrees have been neglected with law schools now isolated from the profession and exposed in the battle for resources

4 thoughts on “Law Review: Law Student Special – From here to eternity… (Part I)

  1. Charon QC – if I may say so, an excellent piece of writing which reflects clearly your in depth knowledge of the legal education field.

    The Times does a superb job with Student Law. I found the article by Charlotte Pickering (“Why do careers advisers in state schools set the Bar so high”) to be particularly thought provoking. Much more needs to be done to get the message out that a career at the Bar (or in the law generally) is not automatically beyond the pupil who attends a state school. However, the financial obstacles to the family of low to medium income are formidable. Also, regrettably, there continues to be the unfortunate impression that, at the end of the day, some get into chambers because (a) they attended the “right” University and (b) they know the “right” people. As the article points out, there is much more work to be done to dispel these myths (if myths they are) and to attract good candidates to the Bar irrespective of their social background.

  2. Obiter J – Thank you. I’ve been in academe, whatever that means these days, for nearly thirty years. I now sit outside, watching!

    I shall be looking at Bar legal education in Part 2!

  3. Pingback: Law Review: Assisted dying, Barristers modernise (?) and standards in legal education. « Charon QC

  4. Very open minded piece. I wonder how many are studying mediation if there is any course for mediation out there. Do you see the mediation game getting bigger? – Just wondering about peoples views on mediation?

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