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2011 runner up

Is the law degree fit for purpose?

Sitanta Ni Mathghamhna (Birkbeck College, University of London)


To determine whether the law degree is fit for purpose, one must first ascertain its purpose. Is it to provide a liberal education, the ‘’advancement of a particular disposition towards life, involving the acquisition both of knowledge, but also a particular habit of mind’’Bradney A. Conversations, Choices and Chances: The Liberal Law School in the Twenty-First Century, Oxford: Hart., or is it to equip students with a training which will enable an effective transition to the practice of law? Or indeed, a combination of both?

The undergraduate law degree (LLB) is first and foremost an academic qualification; postgraduate training must be undertaken before practice, for which the degree provides a foundation. Taking this into consideration as well as the fact that only 45% of students who enrol on the LLB end up practicingUKCLE Report, Legal Education in the UK, 2010. it would seem that, even factoring in the fierce competition for training contracts and pupillages, a significant proportion of students undertaking the degree do so for purposes other than practising as a solicitor or barrister. Perhaps with the differing ambitions of law students in mind, the 1996 report of the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Legal Education Conduct (ACLEC) recommended the retention of “independent liberal education in the discipline of law, not tied to any specific vocation”. Therefore the LLB has a dual mandate – while its primary purpose is academic, it must also provide an adequate basis for effective transition to the professional stage of training for those students wishing to practice. With this duality in mind, the question then becomes ‘does the LLB fulfil the criteria of academic education?’ And furthermore, ‘would the expansion of the LLB to incorporate a vocational as well as an academic element render the degree more fit for purpose for those students wishing to practice?’

In answer to the first question it is my contention that the LLB does fulfil the criteria of academic education; undertaking a law degree is challenging, requiring precision of thought, excellent analytical skills and a heightened facility for succinct written and oral expression. Indeed when the Socratic Method of legal argument is employed, attempting to draw from students a combination of critical analysis and information, it gets to the very heart of the meaning of the verb ‘educate’, which has its roots in Latin, ‘to bring out’. The rigorous training, which is sufficiently demanding that less than 7% of law students receive first class degrees, compared with 14% of degree students in the UK overallLatest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency., is broad enough in scope to provide grounding for employment in a wide variety of disciplines, giving those 65% of students who don’t go on to practice an excellent foundation for further study or work in non-law related areas.

However there are viable alternative routes into the profession, such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), a one year conversion course for non-law graduates in England and Wales. So why study the LLB if you can use any degree as a foundation for the GDL? Whilst many other degrees, especially language and science degrees for those wishing to practice intellectual property (IP) law, equip students with skill sets invaluable in a legal setting, the skills mentioned above which the LLB inculcates comprise a core component of the proficiencies necessary for successful practice within the profession. Additionally opting for the LLB over another academic discipline followed by the GDL negates the need to spend an additional, expensive, year in education.

In answer to the second question; should the LLB incorporate a vocational element, with students qualifying for practice upon the completion of the LLB, as is the case in certain jurisdictions? This would bypass the requirement for costly postgraduate training, as well as the need to secure that most elusive of creatures, the training contract / pupillage. Initial figures might suggest so, given the surfeit of law graduates and the marked lack of such legal apprenticeships available to instruct them. Indeed the United Kingdom has such an excess of lawyers that the Law Society of England & Wales launched a campaign during the summer of 2009 to warn students about the potential drawbacks of a legal career. Statistics bear out these concerns, with a total of 9,337 students enrolled on the legal practice course (LPC) and only 5,809 training contracts availableLaw Society figures.. Figures for the Bar are even worse; each year an estimated 4,000 would-be barristers compete for a paltry 500 pupillage places, prompting Bar Council chairman Nicholas Green QC to recently warn of the “real qualms” he had about a system which encourages Bar Professional Training Course providers to educate increasing numbers of students.

The dissonance between these figures is troubling; no other profession tries to funnel such an inordinate volume of qualified university graduates into such a small professional opening. A proletariat of undergraduates (in Dostoevsky’s words) are now faced with stark choices regarding their tertiary education, as mounting costs deliver diminishing returns. While qualification upon completion of the LLB might relieve the pressures created by the paucity of available pupillages / training contracts, it would also potentially create under-qualified practitioners. Overall the nature of UK legal education, with a clear partition between academic and professional training, is well suited to both the intricacies of the common law system, as well as the differing ambitions of students. Winston Churchill once observed that his early education enabled him to absorb ’’the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence – which is a noble thing.’’Churchill W. My Early Life, A Roving Commission (1930) The LLB provides the grammatical foundation of the common law and its relation to society at large, while professional training supplies the vocabulary, in the form of explicit instruction, required to put that learning into practice.

Last Modified: 17 May 2011