Law Review: The future of legal education is a shopping trolley?

Frank Zappa had a point when he said…“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library. “

I’m in the midst of a series of podcasts and blog posts about the future of legal education.

Lawcast 175: Professor Gary Slapper, Open University, on the reform of legal education

Lawcast 172: On the reform of legal education with Scott Slorach, College of Law

Lawcast 171:  Nigel Savage, CEO of The College of Law

Lawcast 170: Professor Richard Moorehead, Cardiff Law School, University of Cardiff

Two weeks ago I talked to Baroness Deech, Chair of The Bar Standards Board.  In the course of our podcast conversation, we touched on the reform of legal education being undertaken by the profession. I asked her what she thought about the agenda of the big vocational law schools and the role of the profession in the academic stage of legal education provided by the universities at degree level.

I believe  I  summarise her view fairly by saying – that while it is acceptable for the profession to lay down minimum requirements for a law degree which the profession will accept as a ‘qualifying law degree’ for the vocational stage, she did not feel it appropriate for the profession to interfere with the curriculum or teaching of law in the universities at the degree stage.

I agree with her and have some concerns at the attempts by the vocational law schools to set the agenda for the future of legal education to their world view; a world view which, is, inevitably, geared to their growth, profit and development.  I have no problem with them making profit – but I advance an argument that they should stick to their own ‘vocational / practice course’ sector or, if they wish to advance (in) to the academic stage of legal education, they do so on the same basis as our major law universities –  with the same ethos and resources and ethic of research.

Of course, with the current fiasco on university fees – with the majority of universities rushing to charge £9000 or, subtly, just below £9000 –  one could argue that all legal (and other university education) is becoming ‘commercial’.  It would not surprise me if universities start to drop ‘unprofitable courses’ (Here is one example) – and, therein, lies poverty of the spirit of our future culture, arts, history, philososophy et al? That issue, I will have to address at another time.  My focus here is on legal education and, I fear, I may be wasting yet more time by charging at a windmill on a horse with a wooden lance.

Nigel Savage, CEO of the College of Law, wrote in November of last year on his new College of Law blog:  “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. To borrow a quote from Henry Ford that Richard Susskind recently used in a report for The College of Law, ‘if I asked my customers what they wanted – they would have said faster horses!’.”

He then went on to say, remarkably...“Maybe we need more radical solutions? Let’s take the undergraduate LL.B law degree. What does it really prepare students for? It is taught largely by individuals who have never practised law and who increasingly have PhDs in a wide range of areas that bear no resemblance to the practice of law.”
Nigel Savage does not take into account in this statement the fact that nearly 50% of students who read law at university do so with no intention of practising law.  They have other motives – some of which may even be for ‘liberal education’, philosophy’, interest, history and the like.  I doubt they would find a ‘fast track’, possibly ‘dumbed down’ practice oriented fois gras stuffing exercise at degree level, an attractive item to spend £9000  on at a Russell Group university – (More at BPP, College, Cardiff, etc etc – the vocational law schools?).  In any event….why would a A*A*A* candidate want to do a law degree at the ‘new universities / new colleges with degree awarding powers’ – when they can take their pick from the top 20 UK universities?

For my part, we need to ensure that the big vocational law schools are confined to their own ‘quarters’; providing vocational education geared to the basic  needs of their City, commercial and high street clientele and that they, and the professional bodies, keep to the minimum input and advice on the content of law degrees as they have for some time – with some success.

If law firms really want their trainees to be ‘fast tracked’ through law studies – and, I suspect, that many will not – because they want to ensure that their future lawyers are well educated – then, so be it.  Reap as ye sow. Anecdotal evidence is always dangerous.  I recognise that – but I do recall talking with Melvyn Hughes, then managing partner at Slaughter & May, over ten years ago when I did a report on the Legal Practice Course for the *Magic Circle* firms (which they commissioned). He told me that it was imperative that their trainees were well educated at university (and not just law graduates), had good research skills, and, if they did read law, knew some good ‘black letter law’ – because law is a cerebral activity, founded upon intellect and reasoning.  He expressed the view that the firms were best placed to teach trainees the skills of practice as their lawyers progressed through their careers.  Other experienced educators in the Magic Circle told me that the LPC is but the second rung on the ladder. One, told me the LPC was a basic foundation of ‘practice oriented’ skills and basic knowledge of practice.  The firms will do the specialist training. Despite the ‘puffery’  of the vocational law schools in their prospectuses:  I suspect, for many practitioners, the knowledge they learned on the LPC (or BPTC for barristers) is of little use to them when they actually start to practice law and the reality is that they learn on their training contracts and pupillages  – and throughout their careers – what legal practice is actually like? ?  I am advised, anecdotally, that this is a widely held view by younger lawyers and older, more experienced, lawyers.

Why, therefore, would or should we allow the vocational law schools – or the professional bodies for that matter – to interfere in the study of law at the degree or academic stage?  We could end up with a seriously diminished and damaged academic resource.  I wonder, even, how much knowledge the vocational law schools and professional bodies actually have of legal research and the teaching of law as a liberal study’? Perhaps they can tell me?

And then, of course, there are other ‘difficulties’?

The Guardian reported a few days ago…

Private university company under investigation for deceiving students

“US government probes Apollo Group, owner of BPP University College, over admissions and financial aid practices”

Carl Lygo, CEO of BPP and Principal of BPP University, has stated that BPP is UK run and UK managed.  I have absolutely no doubt that he is correct on that.  Unfortunately, his US parent company, Apollo, has had a few problems – widely reported in the press.

Did the Tory-led Coalition rush into education change here by giving BPP the honour and benefits of university status within weeks of not winning an election outright?  – and having to promulgate policy with the benefit of the Lib-Dems – a party not exactly venerated throughout our sceptred isle  for going back on the pre-election ‘Pledge’ on student fees.   The Government appears to have done so on the public sector university fees issue with the majority of universities – even some at the ‘lower end’ of the league table – wanting to join the party and charge the maximum £9000 or close to it?  Unintended consequences?  We see this fiasco played out on national television and in the press daily at the moment.  It would be amusing… if it was not so important.  We shall see, soon enough.

For the avoidance of doubt – I do think that the vocational law schools at LPC and BPTC level do a pretty good job covering their remit as prescribed by the professional bodies.  The fees are pacy (£15k+ for the BPTC in some cases) – but that is a different issue.   Students may not always agree – or, even, enjoy the experience.  There are many student discussion boards which paint a slightly different picture from the glossy law school prospectuses… inevitably?

I don’t have all the answers.  I merely put forward some direct observations – and I may well be ‘past my sell by date’.  I am happy, as always, to be advised and for contrary comment to be put.  I still have enthusiasm to learn and reflect and, even, change my mind if the evidence and argument is persuasive.


The Guardian reports…

Carl Lygo Q&A: What will higher education look like with a larger private sector?

Kim Catcheside talks to Carl Lygo principle (sic: The Grauniad really does the biz on typos)  of BPP University College and the chief exec of BPP Holdings PLC about his visions for the future

Interesting – well worth a read.

8 thoughts on “Law Review: The future of legal education is a shopping trolley?

  1. I agree, a lot of people study a law degree because it is an interesting “academic” degree that teaches you a lot of things like research, properly analysing a problem, viewing an issue from numerous perspectives, learning from the past, being organised, proper thinking. I did not start my law degree with the plan of becoming a solicitor, although now I am here I am very happy to be here, I am sometimes jealous of others who had less obvious career paths. There are a huge number people studying law who don’t go into practice, the suggestion that the law degree should include more practice based elements appears to fail to understand what a law degree is actually all about.

    I would suggest however that they could perhaps bring in an “industry” module which could be formalised with local firms and a proper structure which could also have some form of coursework with it. I think this is something which particularly public sector legal would want to be involved with

    One of my few bug bears remains the LPC and legal training as a whole. I continue to feel that the LPC is nothing but a money making exercise that adds little value. I would vote to abolish it. I do however think that training contracts need to be better regulated with the SRA actually checking on the quality of candidates and training

  2. The vocational law school, and indeed the regulatory bodies: slaughter them at birth, I say. I loved the study of law whilst at university, and I still study it when it’s not too much like working as a lawyer. I started with a great distance learning course, and then transferred to a brilliant open-minded law school. Both were superb in their own ways, and both opened my mind to being able to reason more thoroughly and I think allowed me to develop at my own pace. I cannot stand the idea of the profit motive in legal education, or driving any education. I admit to desire to force more than a few betting-shop pens up Nigel Savage’s nose after hearing his verbal vomit (figuratively speaking of course). Everyone goes into the law to earn more money and/or becoming more important deep down. I did it for both reasons, because deep down down, I’m a bit of a tosser, and probably on the surface too. In fact I might have just really proved that because I’m sure there are alot who really have much better motives than me. The point is, in cotrast to the study of law itself, and the subsequent way I see the professions actually operate has pushed me away from both trying to be a bigwig and wanting loads of cash – I really want to do justice, and usually that’s what people say at the start – and are laughed at because it sounds naff in interviews. Because winning against a big horrible rich bastard on behalf of admittedly a poor irritating one is the best feeling in the world. Earning big $$$ is a sure way to a shit life without time for the Big Picture I feel, and probably a good way to an early death. I just like the winning really, and the richer the opposition, and the poorer my client is the better. So Bollocks! I say! Bollocks! to the greedy law schools, to the greedy fuckwit associates, partners, juniors and silks in the exclusively Oxbridge sets, to the fast-tracking, sharpsuiting, trendy glasses-wearing nutjobs, male and female who lord it around Holborn, the City and the Temple, with their exclusive vowels and their fucking comfortable backgrounds, or pretended exclusive vowels and pretended comfortable backgrounds. I tell you what starves out a litigant more effectively than being so rich you have someone to clean your balloon knot after every poo – it’s being so poor you have nothing to give but a good old ruck….Viva Los Bankruptos, long live the genuine can’t-pays! But getting back to the point, keep the law schools free! !Cuba!

  3. Toxteth O’Grady – Ha! I have not read a comment …. quite like this one….in years…. but I did enjoy doing so…… not sure it will profoundly affect the SRA / BSB thinking on legal education…. but… hey!

    I am delighted, however, that you enjoyed your studies and continue to enjoy law!


  4. I would be very interested in the answer to the question that you tried to put to Scott Slorach, but which he didn’t answer: when the providers talk about the valuable “practical experience” that they say trumps academic qualifications, how much practical experience do their staff have? Equally importantly, is their experience in the area that they are now teaching? My personal experience – and I do not know (but would be interested in knowing) if it is representative, is that while some of their staff are very talented and have a lot of practical experience, others have only just qualified, have very little experience and are not necessarily teaching an area with which they are comfortable – and in any case the most effective of their teachers are the ones who have been working in legal education for many years and should, by their logic, be out-of-touch with how modern legal practice operates and therefore the least effective. One wonders, as with everything commercial, to what extent the fêting of the ‘practical’ lawyer is actually designed to allow them to employ young lawyers without the qualifications – and the price tag – of the traditional university lecturer.

  5. LawStudent – excellent comment.

    I suspect that the vocational law school recruitment turnover is quite high. It is, obviously, more attractive to commercial providers to pay less for teaching staff – if they can.

    However – despite both BPP and CofLaw saying in podcasts with me that they would be open in answering questions… and be subject to FOI… I understand that others have had little success.

    Perhaps.. I should make a few FOI requests myself…. but that would come within commercial sensitivity guidelines… so probably a waste of time..

    I have, however, personal experience of the good quality of materials and some of the staff at many providers of the BPTC / LPC… a very different course than a sophisticated law degree taught by experienced research based academics.

  6. Cheers, Charon – high praise indeed, glad you enjoyed my sweary rant, as I have enjoyed your rather more refined, better written and hugely interesting posts over the years.

    I suggest that the legal vocational schools should be taken over by communists to become collectively-run institutions dedicated to the overthrow of the investment banking industry!

  7. In regard to your last comment (and unless I have misunderstood your query): BPP Holdings Plc is still incorporated as a Plc and registered as such at Companies House. Been listed on the LSE isn’t a requirement of being a Plc.

    Also, I enjoyed the read!

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