Law: Keeping ahead of the game: Sharon Wallach talks to Professor Joanna Shapland about the role and aims of the Institute for the Study of the Legal Profession

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The Independent Online
The changes currently affecting the justice system and the legal profession are largely uninformed by research. To rectify this, and to undertake a systematic consideration of the likely effects of those changes, the Institute for the Study of the Legal Profession has been established at the University of Sheffield's law faculty.

The director of the institute is Professor Joanna Shapland, who has just assumed the chair of criminal justice at the university. Her academic background is rooted in psychology, although she has been well known as a criminologist for many years. Before arriving at Sheffield in 1988, she worked for 10 years in the Centre for Criminological Research in Oxford and has also worked as a consultant to the United Nations and the Council of Europe.

The institute was established a year ago, but formally launched last month, at a one-day conference. Under discussion was the changing shape of the legal profession, legal access and the provision of legal services.

'The institute is the first research entity to look specifically at the legal profession in this country. We are also examining the way in which the role of the provider of legal services fits into the systems of civil and criminal justice,' Professor Shapland says. She adds that the profession includes the judiciary as well as providers of legal services in other areas such as financial services.

Why is there a need for the institute? 'We are living in times of great change, both legislative and in the marketplace,' Professor Shapland says.

''There are some headline-grabbing issues - the Royal Commission on criminal justice, the changes to legal aid, the development of franchising, rights of audience and the work of the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee. There is also the relative collapse of corporate property work, bringing hard times for City solicitors, and vast changes in the way we look at family issues.'

Some of the change is happening in response to the growing internationalisation of business and the need for experience in working under different regulatory restrictions. 'Unless we have substantial knowledge of how the system is working, we cannot easily predict the effects of the major structural changes,' says Professor Shapland. 'Some areas - for instance criminal justice - have been the subject of lot of research. But as far as the civil area and the profession itself are concerned, the number of research projects can be counted on the fingers of two hands, if not one.'

Most of the funding for the institute is provided by the university, although, Professor Shapland says, this is 'a small amount for a limited number of years - universities are not flush at the moment'. Money also comes from other funding agencies for specific projects. So far, she says, the institute is not the recipient of sponsorship by individual law firms.

'We were determined to have a solid research base, and not just be a name on headed paper,' Professor Shapland says. 'Now we are building up the forum aspect of our work.

'We want to be a place of collaboration and discussion. Our prime aim is not to snaffle the whole subject for ourselves, but we certainly want our research to be the best in the country, and overseas. It is very challenging and difficult for us, the field is so wide open. If we chose just one area to research, we would have enough work for the rest of our lives.'

So the decision was taken to do what Professor Shapland calls 'ground-clearing work', to document and analyse major aspects. One project currently under way is an evaluation of vocational training at the Bar, funded by the Council of Legal Education. Another is a study of the professionalism, identity and skills of trainee solicitors. 'We cannot presume that the lawyers of today will be the same as lawyers in 10 years' time,' Professor Shapland points out.

Another institute project is researching the way in which the profession is changing its structure to cope with the new demands of the market; many of these changes are particularly marked for firms specialising in commercial work. Pilot interviews with solicitors have looked at specialisation, the development of team working and specialist departments, and the consequences of the changing market for training. 'In a way, the recession is a natural experiment,' Professor Shapland says.

An examination of the feasibility of a contingency legal aid fund for personal injury litigation is also being undertaken, partly funded by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, and the Law Society's research and policy planning unit is financing a survey of the structure of other UK professions. This work is examining the role of the professional associations and the different regulatory frameworks in promoting good practice, and in responding at the same time to both clients and the needs of members.

The issues include codes of practice, mechanisms for encouraging professional development, co-operation between professions, multi- disciplinary partnerships and the strucure of disciplinary and regulatory bodies.

Professor Shapland is also helping the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct set up a monitoring programme following the extension of rights of audience in the higher courts to solicitors. 'The committee considers monitoring of any changes to be a very important part of their role. Their job is not just to produce a change and then go away, it's also seeing the effects of the change and judging whether anything else is needed.'

A research project being 'cooked up' as a comparative study concerns the 'globalisation of regulation' - the likely influence of EC directives on professional regulation, Professor Shapland explains. 'In law particularly, this cannot be regarded as only a national pastime,' she says. 'The legal system will remain national, but the legal profession is likely to be working internationally. It is happening already, with the larger firms opening offices all over the world. It is important to look at this now, so that standards of practice and ethics can be created.'

Another area of interest for Professor Shapland is the idea of 'advanced competence'. 'Basic competence is very well thought out and evaluated, but we expect professionals to develop and change by themselves. Continuing education does exist, but we haven't thought out what we want, whether it's a better level of the same kind of service, for instance, or a different level of skill,' she says.

(Photograph omitted)