Law schools are not taking advantage of the “enormous regulatory freedom” they have and instead are largely all offering the same kind of law degree, new research has found.
The analysis by Professor Steven Vaughan of University College London led him to question whether the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) would make much difference to the way law was taught at the undergraduate stage.
To be a qualifying law degree (QLD) – that is, it provides exemption from a law conversion course for would-be solicitors and barristers – there are only three requirements: first, at least half of the 360 credits that make up the degree need to come from studying the seven ‘foundation’ subjects: contract, tort, constitutional law, crime, land, trusts and EU law.
Second, 240 of the 360 credits must come from studying ‘legal subjects’, and third there must be some study of legal subjects in the third year.
The first results of research headed by Professor Vaughan into how the top 86 law schools in England and Wales teach their undergraduate law degree found that only 12 made a QLD optional for their students.
Speaking at a recent roundtable on legal education for the future, organised by CILEx Regulation, he said this was “really striking” because, although historically students took a law degree because they were going to become lawyers, the latest figures showed that only 20% of law graduates ended up as solicitors two years later.
“This may make us ask the question – if only a small minority of law students become solicitors, why make them do a qualifying law degree?”
The data also showed that almost every law school taught in blocks or modules that primarily corresponded to the foundation subjects, ie a module called ‘contract’ and so on.
But the rules did not require this, Professor Vaughan said. “I, as an environmental lawyer, could say a lot about tort, crime, public, land and EU law in a module titled ‘climate change’.”
The third finding was that certain groups of subjects were put together a lot of the time: the typical law school put public, crime, and contract in the first year, EU, tort and property in the second, and trusts in the third.
Fourth, most subjects were taught in 30 credit blocks, when there was no regulatory requirement to do so, and most law schools made more than 180 credits of foundation subjects compulsory.
Finally, leaving aside modules on legal skills and on the English legal system, very little else was made compulsory for law students over and above the foundation subjects.
Professor Vaughan observed: “Many legal academics, myself included, are keen to say we are not engaged in preparing law students for legal practice and that we are instead engaged in giving them a liberal education.
“Despite this, we are not especially clear, if at all, about the liberalism that we are interested in, or very good, if at all, about articulating how that liberalism translates into what we teach and how we teach it.
“I am not sure that a model which sees, across almost all law schools, the foundation subjects taught in the way they are currently taught is especially liberal.”
Professor Vaughan noted that many law schools claimed they were distinctive.
“Yet that difference often does not translate especially well into how we structure our law degrees.
“This is somewhat odd in a competitive market for bright first years where distinction could amount to a USP which brings student X to my law school instead of another they were potentially interested in.”
He questioned whether legal academics were not taking advantage of the freedom they had “because we, as a community, believe in the ‘sacred cows’ of the foundation subjects, that they need to be taught in 30 credit blocks, in certain years, and that nothing else is really so sacred that it needs to be made compulsory?
“Or is something else going on? Is it, as Mark Davies from Sussex Law School has debated, that law schools playing safe, that law schools are doing some sort of cost benefit analysis – i.e. lots of QLD students means lots of money which means lots of staff – and/or that law schools are thinking that the mix between foundations/options reflects some sort of compromise between liberal and vocational approaches to the study of law?”
Professor Vaughan said the data suggested that – while there were some that were more keen to innovate, such as York and Northumbria – most law schools’ conservative instincts meant they were unlikely to change very significantly in the near future, “never mind what I see as the liberalising, freeing effects” of the new SQE.
The academic added: “Factors such as reputation, student and parental views, university rankings and the often hidden preferences of what we might call big-volume, ‘blue chip’ employers do and will shape what happens in law schools just as much as things like regulatory controls and the personal views of the legal academy.
“As such, the future of legal education is partly tied to the future more generally.”