Defending the Law Degree

The blanket of legal education is being pulled in different directions, the seams of the fabric are beginning to split as each self-interested group vies to become the dominant route into the profession.

Externally, the law degree is being questioned by the many graduate converters and the emerging threat of the non-graduate route into law, via a legal apprenticeship. Internally, questions are being asked courtesy of practice-focussed BPP and CoL. So, has the time come, where the Law degree is declared no longer fit for purpose?

There appears to be a false dichotomy that is too often drawn between academic study and the needs of practitioners. A conceptual foundation capable of engaging complex legal issues by examining conflicting interpretations of the law is essential. Conflicting theoretical jurisprudential arguments often mirror the doctrinal disagreements in appellate cases. This factor leads to the formation of specialist knowledge into a given area – something that will not be lost in practice. Whilst a theoretical platform can also expose aspiring practitioners to the interaction between areas of law, which would ensure that they have the necessary resources to react to ambiguous legal developments that the practitioners’ world is prone to. The traditional law degree can offer students a rigorous and superb education and can offer employers well-rounded candidates equipped with an array of transferrable skills in the modern world. It has the potential to expose students to neighboring disciplines which strengthens contextual knowledge.

This description is reminiscent of the great A.V. Dicey’s vision of legal education. One popular mistake made is the false presumption that all law degrees are the same. Unfortunately, this ideal described, is, in many instances not being realised – not all of the law degrees on offer correspond with Dicey’s ideas. Under-qualified law graduates are explained by a failing programme. This is mis-leading and does the traditional law degree a great disservice when there are a number of significant factors to consider.

The Student Problem

‘A means to an end’ culture has taken root. The viewpoint which assigns the law degree to a mere first step towards practice ignores the reality, within which a sizeable proportion of graduates will not go on to practice. Consequently, it is difficult to convince students that theoretical considerations are important if they are not to be assessed on them. Many curricula continue to neglect subjects such as jurisprudence, political theory, socio-legal studies, legal history ect. The resulting problem is what Lord Sumption has recently commented on: the lack of general culture amongst law students. However it should be pointed out that a narrow-minded student undertaking a BA, will, in most likelihood, remain narrow-minded. Ultimately the onus should be on the quality of the individual.

This is combined with problems of complacency. For many students there is a feeling that the fact they are undertaking a law degree should be sufficient in itself. A complete delusion. Grade inflation, open book exams and the omission of writing style, flair and persuasiveness from marking criteria compound these problems of complacency.

The potential danger is that legal scholarship becomes marginalised which is disastrous for our legal system – as Wilson and Morris (1994) have commented, “…the theories of law [would] still rule from their graves”. This must be avoided. A cultural shift needs to take place. The academics are intrinsically linked to the needs of the profession. It should not be viewed as an annoying hoop for aspiring practitioners to jump through, but, instead a journey that can enable graduates to engage in lawyers’ work.

The University Problem

Another culprit are the universities themselves. Indeed, the lowering of standards can be chartered from the commercialisation of universities. They are the gate keepers of education, which carries a great responsibility. It is conceivable that this responsibility has been abused as many universities have seemingly rolled out an adaptation of Henry Ford’s 1908 invention: the assembly line. Indeed, within many Law Schools across the country, student classes are now considerably larger, contact hours with professors and senior lecturers have decreased, administrative tasks for lecturers have increased and resources are ever shrinking – under resourced libraries are now commonplace. All of this is disastrous for legal education. Profit-focussed universities have arguably usurped the law degree, and have been so neglectful that we are seeing practices which are at odds with the true values and traditions of the law degree. This gives the false impression of a failing law degree – that it is somehow the programme to blame. Sweeping generalisations are dangerous, as has been highlighted the law degree comes in many different forms.

Savaging Legal Education?

Nigel Savage has notably declared the law degree is unfit for purpose. His answer? – A pseudo-professional, two-year law degree. The way in which the CoL and BPP have pandered to the profession will no doubt make this programme desirable to many ‘wilfully blind’ aspiring practitioners. The only real winners under this programme are the publishers of ‘Nutshells’. Law firms certainly will not profit by being served up with even younger applicants with equally limited knowledge and intellectual diversity. The two-year model does not allow for many slots, or time for in-depth analysis into legal doctrine, or areas of law outside the core. Consequently, this programme will only compound the cultural problems Lord Sumption speaks of. Any potential benefit that could be gained from the practical elements of the course are heavily diluted by the lack of cultural awareness on offer, making the programme something of a Curate’s egg, although this may be lost on the CoL and BPP faithful, who display a passion beyond reason.

How long before we see the ‘bespoke’ law degree, tailored to the needs of the city being offered by CoL and BPP? – It is another danger we must avoid.

Concluding Thoughts

In times of increasing competition, in a world of globalisation, it is not just our universities that are falling out of favour and are diminishing in prestige. It is also our legal profession – not being the world beater it once was. To combat this drop in status and to address the skills deficit problems, an affirmation of the values and practices that Dicey envisaged would be a good place to start.