Long live the law degree: Fast Track

In a prizewinning essay, Janet Gray argues for a system that may not even produce lawyers
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The Independent Online
Geoff Hoon, parliamentary secretary to the Lord Chancellor's department, recently made this thought-provoking comment: "Law students should be told that the study of law is no more likely to lead to a career in legal practice than the study of English is to lead to a career writing novels."

So, what are law schools for? Mr Hoon, a former law lecturer, expressed concern at the number of law graduates seeping into the job market, saturating something that is already thoroughly soaked. If they cannot secure a position within the legal profession, what are the alternatives?

Although the problem is prevalent in both branches of the profession, the question is addressed from a prospective solicitor's viewpoint. As far as they are concerned, the problem has recently been exacerbated by the increase of legal practice course (LPC) places available. Although this has been capped at 8,000, the legal profession's capacity is not infinite - approximately 4,000 training contracts per annum are available - yet law facilities are still accepting large numbers of students. Clearly, it is time to review the system.

The legal profession is undergoing dynamic changes, which will undoubtedly continue into the millennium. Probably the most dramatic changes are within the commercial law field. Firms are merging to become bigger and better, acquiring multi-disciplinary teams to meet efficiently the growing demands of their clients. This is crucial for survival in a vying environment, one that is set to become even more competitive due to proposed reforms from Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, and the Lord Chancellor. It is time for legal training to adapt, to ensure that graduates are ready to meet the changing needs of these firms.

Currently, a law student reads for three years as an undergraduate, studying, among other things, the seven core subjects stipulated by the Law and Bar Societies. This may be followed by a vocational course prior to entrance into their chosen branch of the profession.

The year 1993 was a significant one for solicitors; Law Society finals were replaced by the LPC, which places more emphasis on practical skills.

A further review in 1997 demoted wills and probate to an elective option and placed more importance on tax and accounting. These reforms are a response to some of the changes in modern law firms, but there are still shortfalls.

The profession has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Lawyers are no longer able to sit back waiting for clients to approach them with problems. Marketing is a crucial element of today's practice, with a greater accent on proactive work to generate business. Certain skills are required to ensure this is done professionally and subtly, without being too brash or aggressive.

As well as marketing, lawyers need to have knowledge of accounts systems, be exemplary time managers and have the expertise to manage people effectively and diplomatically. They also need to be equipped to manage change and motivate others to change, probably one of the most difficult, but most important, tasks in the present climate. Last, but by no means least, they must also be au fait with prevalent information technology.

Is current legal training preparing trainees adequately for the real world?

The traditional route of attaining a qualifying law degree, followed by the LPC, apparently leaves gaps. From my own, albeit limited, research within a commercial firm in Liverpool, time management, marketing and computer skills were areas where trainees felt least prepared.

Although this is the usual path it has never been compulsory to possess a law degree in order to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales. Students possessing a non-law degree can qualify by undertaking the common professional examination/ postgraduate diploma in Law (CPE) - effectively a year's conversion course - which enables them to continue with the LPC.

Are these graduates considered disadvantaged in practice? Again, from recent research at Liverpool, the answer is a resounding no. Indeed, a few of those interviewed felt they were better prepared in some areas, having an adequate knowledge of the law and other useful, transferable skills.

Taking this into consideration, is undergraduate study of law still necessary?

Apparently there is a strong case for this to continue; during the undergraduate period, students can develop the ability to digest a large amount of material quickly, evaluate it and apply it to a problem. This analytical, problem- solving approach is a necessary tool for the practising lawyer, as is the ability to articulate ideas and express opinions based on logical thought, supported by evidence and research. These attributes are attractive to other disciplines, not merely the legal profession.

It has been noted that CPE graduates are not necessarily disadvantaged in practice, but how do they fare en route?

Financially, they are worse off than those who took the usual route to qualification. They also have to cover the core topics of law in one year instead of three - the major criticism of the course. It is very intensive and demanding, giving students a mere "snapshot" view of the law. And, despite its advantages in some areas, this is probably not ideal.

The programme for legal training in the US makes an interesting comparison. Again, law is studied as a postgraduate discipline, but this time for three years. This system also has engaging features, most notably the element of maturity - graduates have more insight and experience of life, allowing them to relate to situations more effectively. They are also more focused on how they wish their careers to develop. However, despite its advantages, this regime would probably not be well received here, particularly in the light of recent changes regarding funding of education.

Some compromise between the two former scenarios may be more suitable. Notwithstanding calls for reform of legal training as a whole, the consensus is that law should remain an undergraduate subject. However, there is room to improve the course. Employing the contextual approach, the recommended topics could be condensed into a two-year course, with few if any, adverse consequences. Students who now have to pay tuition fees would no doubt welcome a reduction in the undergraduate period; however, there are other considerations.

University life is not merely about academic achievement, it is also a time for personal development, maturing, accepting responsibility and generally acquiring experience of life. It is also a time of evaluation; few 18- year-olds know exactly what they want to do, and, even after three years, some students are unsure of their next career move. Probably little or nothing would be gained by reducing the undergraduate period, but it could be utilised more constructively.

I would disagree with claims that, in this country, a law degree is viewed purely as the first step towards practising law. A qualification in law is a valuable, marketable commodity - law graduates are particularly sought after in the fields of banking, insurance and accountancy, to name a few.

A course studying law for two years, complying with Law and Bar Society requirements, plus another year concentrating on various aspects of business management, including accounting, marketing, human resource management, time management and information technology, would serve two purposes.

This suggested qualification would enhance the marketability of those who do not wish to, or realistically decide not to, continue legal training; it would also provide superior groundwork for those who do undertake the LPC, hopefully bridging previous gaps.

Postgraduate law schools can only go so far, as there is no substitute for real experience; they cannot possibly prepare a trainee solicitor for every imaginable contingency, nor are they expected to. Each firm has its own unique style, it is therefore appropriate that the LPC provides a general training, giving graduates a solid foundation to build upon "on the job".

The next generation of law students would reap greater benefits from a qualifying law degree which also incorporates vital elements of business management. This would apply to those who wish to pursue a career in either branch of the legal profession and to those who choose a completely different direction.

Given the opportunities that such an education would provide, undergraduate law schools should not be reserved merely for those who want to go on and practise law. As the traditional law degree is considered an excellent foundation by prospective employers, surely this alternative would prove an even more appealing one.

Vice-chancellors of universities have recently been blamed for the over- supply of law graduates in the past, due to concern that the system may become overloaded.

Unfortunately the more precise match between the numbers of graduates and actual opportunities in the profession, as called for by Mr Hoon, will always be elusive.

However, going back to Mr. Hoon's comment, if the structure of the law degree was adapted, coupled with more realistic career advice, there would be no reason to restrict student numbers. Law schools could continue to produce graduates with a well respected education, opening doors within the legal profession and beyond.