NTU Centre for Legal Education conference: session 1, visions of legal education

by Paul Maharg on 03/05/2012

I’m liveblogging the Nottingham Law School’s Centre for Legal Education launch conference.  Directors of the Centre are Becky Huxley-Binns, Jane Ching, my colleague on the LETR project, and Andrea Nollent, who introduced the event and Baroness Deech, who gave the first address.  The session was called Visions of Legal Education.  Ruth pointed out how critical the time was for legal education: the major changes being brought about by the Legal Services Act 2007, the role of ethics and professional responsibility, costs of legal education, cuts in legal aid.

Next up, the Question Time panellists who talked for five minutes on their vision for legal education & answered questions.  First was David Urpeth of Irwin Mitchell, who  focused on legal practice: reducing margins (especially in era of the Jackson reforms), streamlining practice, etc.  He argued that legal education needs to prepare students for practice, and particularly in the future (in his opinion) through more varied para-legal qualifications.

Nazmin Akthar next: our academic degrees aren’t academic enough; our vocational qualifications aren’t vocational enough.  The divide between the two is ineffective – graduates who ‘haven’t a clue what they should be doing’.

BecksHuxBinns next.  We need to harness and champion what makes law unique in society. There is a place for a rules-based approach to learning; and also that recognizes that law takes place in society.  Our grad students have to understand how the law impacts on clients, and how law has a place to play in social change.  There’s no single purpose to legal education: a law degree is preparation for professional work, and ethics should be a major part of that.

Gary Lee Walters, of StretLaw, argued for a law degree that includes practice (both solicitor & barrister training), particularly in the form of simulation.  This gave him, in his own education & career, the ability to understand quickly what many aspects of practice were about.  He wanted a three-year degree that would include both academic and practice elements, and for students then to be available for traineeship thereafter (if I’ve understood him right).

Baishali Majumdar spoke about the paucity of traineeships.  She argued for practical placements alongside core modules in university to replace traineeships.  She wanted a closer link in this way between academic & professional practices.  Eg she wanted students to have an understanding of the time-billing system in practice.  Interesting point: does she want students to understand the practice, or does she want them to understand how it affects practice (ie the sociolegal literature that shows how negative the effect can be on practice and client relationships) – or maybe both?.  She mentioned the ‘who you know’ aspect of traineeships, and how a placement scheme could make the playing field more equal.

Ruth Deech pointed out how the Bar is concerned with diversity, visiting law schools; the Inns offering £4M in scholarships.  But pupillages were problematic: not enough for the potential intrants to the Bar.  She mentioned how difficult this was, but was adamant that there was no discrimination.  Hmm: she only had five minutes, but I’d have preferred for her to engage with some of the literature that gave a more nuanced view on that subject.

At questions: should school pupils study A-level Law?  Baishali said yes: very worthwhile, though not necessary.  Gary raised the useful point that law should be a much more embedded part of school life and schoolwork: rights, obligations, etc.  Andrea Nollent commented helpfully about the dangers of specialization, and the dangers of impoverishing our students by asking them to specialize too early – what about history, languages, philosophy.  She mentioned the Scottish example as an alternative, and I completely agree that English legal education structures can learn from the Scottish model in that respect.  Ruth Deech wondered where young people got their information from about the profession.  Our research for the Scottish Executive back in 2003 gave an answer: either from the media (TV, films) or from relatives already in the law.

Moving on to undergraduate law, Fiona Cownie pointed out the session was called Visions of Legal Education but while worthy, it was short on vision – undergrad education opened doors, but only if legal education was creative, imaginative, exciting.  Most students didn’t become solicitors & barristers, so Fiona wanted creative and exciting education that would fulfil their potential as persons.  Good comment.  David Urpeth disagreed: Fiona and others like her were producing too many for the profession.  He talked of students as products.  Gary agreed with Fiona about education.  Then he gave her his iPad to look at, showing how he taught creatively, particularly simulation.  Thanks for the namecheck, Gary…

More on the difference between education and training, then David Urpeth pointed out that his firm could consider training staff straight from school — be careful what you wish for.  Ruth Deech didn’t agree with that at all. Baishali wanted easier access to practical training.  She would have preferred to have done other subjects, eg French or English at university, then do the GDL.

Julian Webb noted there was a problem: broad liberal education, training, business skills, simulation, creative exciting stuff — all this was wanted.  He asked, in the context of LETR being a review of regulation of legal education, why is the law degree regulated at all?  Ruth agreed, so did Becky.  A student spoke up in favour of practical skills: learning them is not to ‘shoehorn’ the students into a profession; such skills don’t need separate courses, they are part of the law, and should be part of legal education, not hived off into ‘training’.  He was going into the profession, and he found that in itself exciting, if excitement were called for.  Good comment!

Ruth Deech can’t see much wrong with the status quo in legal education: the quality of law graduates was good, flexibility was the problem.  Extraordinary statement, really, where do you begin with that one — a few indrawn breaths around me.  Gary Walters disagreed. Keith Gomperz said no law programme should be beholden to business: it should be a highly critical law degree, criticize the legal profession’s divide and much else.  Articles were a good model, he argued: professional skills can be practised then.  He agreed with Fiona: law was not a vocational route.  We have sold out to business and the market in the QLD.  Q: did the Law Soc make a mistake in having an all-graduate profession?  A BPTC student supported pro bono, and asked the panel, if they were with her on that, how there could be more in the law degree?  Becky agreed with the student; Ruth wondered how it would fit into the law degree; David agreed as did Gary.  Who couldn’t!

Ruth turned to the LPC & BPTC.  Amanda Fancourt commented on how LPC staff could feel squeezed by the issue of how students are not ‘fit for purpose’.  In what ways, she asked?  What are we doing or not doing that was wrong?  David Urpeth mentioned lack of commercial awareness, and business awareness.  Deech wondered if commercial awareness could be taught (another sharp intake of breath); Urpeth said it certainly can and gave examples.  Sir Mark Potter wondered if it were part of the university or LPC mission to teach business awareness.  David Urpeth disagreed: it was, and the universities needed at least to engage the profession on the issue.

A student said, LPC or BPTC: it was like roulette, red or black — which will give you a job nowadays.  What about a fused course?  Good question, and again the Scottish model, this time of professional education, provides an answer.  If you are to have a divided profession, train later for it: don’t specialize too early.

Ruth Deech summarised what was wrong: information given (or not) to schoolchildren;  the need for clinical or pro bono or practical experience in a law course; the cost of the professional programmes and how one was to choose between them, given costs & job availability; commercial awareness; and the validity of CPD — how to measure it, what’s the right CPD, etc.  Good summary, but I do think what’s wrong goes well beyond this.

Useful session in that there were the usual debates, the usual tensions and questions.  Nothing strikingly new was proposed or debated, with the exception of Julian’s point, which is a LETR view in our recent discussion paper, p.25).  Both the student queries were sophisticated and acute, and the panel didn’t always answer convincingly.  Nazmin gave an example of legal research in professional life having to be carried out at breakneck speed, and how that unsettled her.  Interesting in the light of my last posting on professional legal research, and also in view of what I’ve written and talked about on tempo and pace of simulation.  She was wrong: there are ways of dealing with this issue of speed in the law school: it’s just that pace and tempo have rarely been part of the law school remit, let alone vision.  And that is interesting, because I mean tempo in the Arts sense as well as a business sense — the Beyond Text project and the two volumes that Maks del Mar, Zen Bankowski and me (vol 1 only) are editing is interesting on that issue — and shows how legal education in the undergraduate sense can be both creative (tempo: music, drama, visual rhythm, deftness, psychological balance, clarity of mind, contextual thinking)  and deal with professional issues (tempo: psychological balance, clarity of mind, deftness, focus, contextual thinking).  Ruth Deech is wrong: there is so much that can be improved in our law schools, and so much that we need to do to transform legal education in it.  If the NTU Centre for Legal Education can take forward that transformational project, then it will be a real success in the field.


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