When three into two will go

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Cameron had to bill at least eight hours before he could have his warm milk and beddie-byes

Doing a law degree was great. Not because of the law, I should say, but because the 10 or so hours a week of formal studying left lots of time for other, somewhat more fulfilling activities. One was, of course, expected to spend lots of time in the library between lectures, but thanks to the wonders of Nutshells in particular (may their authors be eternally blessed), I just about made it through without.

It would be wrong to say I got nothing from my law degree (at Manchester University) – and compared to the soul-destroying Law Society Finals it was an absolute riot – and so I have been unsure how to react to the debate about the College of Law’s new two-year law degree, following BPP’s lead.

Others are not impressed. In the Guardian, Alex Aldridge doubts whether it will actually save students much money or whether the course will produce graduates who will appeal to the big City law firms. Professor Richard Moorhead of Cardiff Law School worries that the course will not allow students to develop the necessary skills that a traditional degree does. However, Charon QC (aka legal educationalist Mike Semple Piggot) suggests it would be folly to write off the chances of the College of Law and BPP rapidly gaining credibility for their courses.

I have waited to have my say until I got a better idea of what this practice-focused degree will look like. The College has given me some background material, and I have to say that it feels more like the graduate diploma in law/legal practice course than a degree. All the tutors will be practitioners, rather than academics; students will produce reports, analyses and opinions, not essays and discursive answers to academic problems; there will be regular timetabled sessions on “employability”; large group sessions will be interactive, rather than university-style lectures; and every student will have a qualified lawyer as a mentor.

The material I have seen explains that subjects and themes will first be studied in practical terms, concentrating on common contexts and situations; and the personal, commercial, business and financial factors operating in these contexts and situations where the law has an impact. I’m struggling to understand exactly what that means, to be honest, but part of it is that learning about the development of the law in a discursive way will not be on the agenda.

The papers say: “At this stage, legal knowledge will be provided in the form of the standard, most important, rules and principles applicable in the majority of, or most common, situations. Most particularly, the rationale for these rules or principles will be established.  This approach will provide a foundation for the later detailed exposition of the source of that law, whether common law or statute.

“An analogy would be the development of understanding of physiology, medical histories and symptoms, and the application of the principal medical and healthcare approaches.  At this stage, there would not be discussion of the history of the development of a particular drug or procedure, or any relative policy issues.”

The overall objective, says the College, is for students to approach law not as a range of discrete subjects but a series of concepts and rules applicable across a range of contexts, albeit with additional rules specific to individual contexts and practice areas.

The question this leaves in my mind is about the purpose of the law degree. For the College, it is to prepare students to become lawyers. Professor Scott Slorach, who designed the course, explains that it challenges the notion that academic and vocational training are mutually exclusive. It is, as he says, a more contemporary approach to the law as it is today.

But are students missing out by not having the more academic grounding in the law (there’s no jurisprudence in the classic sense on the College’s course, for example), and indeed learning skills applicable in many other contexts? This question is probably impossible to answer at the moment.

Currently a lot of law students for whatever reason go off and do something else once they’ve graduated (around 13,000 graduate with LL.Bs every year), while many solicitors do not have law degrees – more than a quarter of newly qualifieds, according to the most recent statistics. City law firms like trainees with a scientific or language background. How easy will it be for people like this to catch up with graduates of the fast-track LL.B?

Another issue is the speed with which students will be able to qualify (which cuts across the broader issue of the affordability and purpose of university, making two-year degrees potentially more appealing). A two-year degree, an accelerated six-month LPC (as now available) and even if you do a normal training contract (and the SRA’s work-based learning project could deliver shorter alternatives to that), you could be qualified in four and a half years. Northumbria University is piloting a five-year integrated degree, LPC and training contract. You will undoubtedly feel you’re getting older when the newly qualified solicitors really are getting younger.

I remain unsure what to think about the two-year degree except that I wouldn’t have wanted to do it. It promises the same number of credits and hours as a three-year degree. And that sounds like no fun whatsoever.


    Readers Comments

  • Alice bob says:

    I started a 2 yr accelerated LLB and it’s fine for young things with little responsibility but if you have family or a job to pay for degree then it’s near impossible. I don’t think cutting the standard degree down to 2 yrs helps teach young people about the other benefits of post18 education or student life.

    Perhaps I’m old fashioned but a degree should be about more than training for a career, it should ve about life, relationships, networks and socialising.

  • Neil, I think you’ve correctly identified the ambivalence that seems to hang over this initiative. I quite like the idea of a practitioner’s degree (whether it’s in two years or three is less important, to my mind, than what’s actually being taught), and my hope is that its primary effect will be to change expectations in the “law student marketplace” about what a law degree ought to provide. But if the knock against traditional “academic” law degrees is their refusal to acknowledge the practicing bar, then it’s not real progress to invent a new law degree that essentially commits the same sin in reverse. We seem to be stuck in a sort of either/or paradigm.

    It would be nice if we could come up with a professional accreditation process for lawyers that involves both “education” and “training,” to use the terms broadly. I touched on this last fall in a blog post (http://www.law21.ca/2010/09/03/law-as-an-undergraduate-degree/) positing that the North American law degree, at least, is nothing more than a jumped-up undergrad degree, not a graduate program and certainly not an example of jurisprudential instruction. These new programs seem like they’d be excellent complements to a true undergraduate degree in law that delivered the academic grounding lawyers need to earn their stripes as professionals. I’m just not sure that universities of any type are thinking that way right now.

    We need a better legal education system, and getting there will involve stops and starts, trials and errors. I like these new programs and I think they qualify as starts more than stops, but I also think the evolutionary process has only begun. And about time, too.

  • Scott Stemp says:

    I disagree with the stated premis of the course – that it challenges the ‘standard’ view of a dichotomy between academic and vocational study of the law. When I studied my LLB (in the mid-1990s) at the University of Southampton much of the teaching and approach was in the form of practical ‘case studies’ requiring ‘advice’ to be given to parties in problem question scenarios. Prof Slorach’s ‘contemporary’ approach is to my mind distinctly not what this course is about, since other Law faculties of any repute (and many of lesser repute) have been adopting this approach to the teaching of law for decades.

    So what is it about? The (sole) benefit then appears to be the completion of a qualifying LL.B course in two rather than three years, thereby incurring less in the way of tuition fees/student debt.

    Is this desirable? In my view the accelerated completion of an LL.B (or any other degree, for that matter) for those who have no previous degree-level qualification is not desirable.

    Any Law degree (or any other degree) of any quality should, through its teaching, equip students with a basic skillset of researching materials (academic or practice-based) then stripping out the relevant aspects of those materials, the analysis of those materials and the subsequent reconstruction of said analysied materials into considered arguments which can then be applied to differing scenarios. If your degree course does not teach you these basic skills, it is to my mind not worth the time you are spending studying it.

    I accept that equipping undergraduate students with these skill could be achieved in two rather than three years. But I am firmly of the view that it is not a desirable thing to try and do.

    Having gone through a three-year degree and then having subsequently taught undergraduates on an LL.B course I am firmly of the view that there is a considerable amount of improvement in most undergraduates as a result of simply spending more time studying and reflecting on their subject and on themselves. There’s a lot of maturing that can be done between being a Fresher and graduation (hard to believe I know, but certainly my grades were higher and abilities considerably greater by graduation at the end of a third year of undergraduate study than they were at the end of the first or second years).

    Also I firmly believe that the understanding of law, including the ability to analyse concepts of law and see their potential application to vastly differing factual scenarios is inestimably assisted by understanding how doctrines have developed over years (or even centuries) or with consideration of jurisprudential thought. I had the very great benefit of being able to study jurisprudence (in the classic sense) and to my mind it is the one subject above any other than I studied on my LL.B that helped me break out of a ‘black letter law’ mindset, that really forced me to think in a much wider way about the fundamental principles of law and political thought that underpinned every single piece of law (statute or case law) that I had to analyse or use.

    Even if you disagree with me on these points (and I accept that there are many who might – but they are wrong, obviously!) the undeniable fact is that a two year degree inherently disadvantages those who study it (as against a three year course) in that by defintion those students on the shorter course have one year less in which to add to the ‘extra curricular activities’ on their CV or application form. In a world of increasing competition for jobs and students who all have 2:1 or first class degrees, applicants need other things on their CV to stand out and this course denies their students one-third of the time that their direct competitors will have.

    As an undergraduate I undertook work placements in solicitors firms, mini-pupillages in a variety of Chambers, voluntary work with charities and also positions within the student law society. This was in addition to actually having interests outside of the law (shock, horror). I could do this because I had three years in which to undertake all of these – how does a student with one year less manage to achieve the same CV profile as someone who has another year to stuff with more activities?

    And thats before you even consider whether lawyers are better at being lawyers or not if they have interests outside of the law. I thought a common complaint (which this course purports to address) was that lawyers can’t engage on a practical level. How do you engage on a practical level if you have no time to engage with the wider world?

    So we return to the sole benefit – the accelerated completion of a law degree. Meh. Flash fried steak is fine, but I have never yet picked that from a menu over beautifully marinaded meats with flavours and sauces of real depth.

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