Thursday, 3 March 2011

What Is Legal Education For?

I've been participating in a new educational venture for the past couple of months called "Law Without Walls" (LWOW). It sees current thinking on legal education as being out of touch with the modern world and other dynamic ways of thinking. In other words, it has become stale and narrow. There's not a lot to argue about there.

What is interesting is that the arguments for radical change in legal education in the US are built around the way the legal profession has responded to the financial crisis. The germ of this was that the US legal profession made explicit what had been covert for a time: the tournament for partnership has been dead and long gone. It wasn't sleeping like Monty Python's Norwegian Blue parrot.

Legal education has risen up the agenda in the UK. The three largest legal professional regulators are reviewing education in and training because of the impending arrival of alternative business structures in October 2011.

I may not be the best person to talk about this as I'm a legal academic; sort of, I own up to being a sociologist as well. However, I read an article in The Lawyer by Nigel Savage who terms himself 'Chief Executive' of the College of Law. (I presume by calling himself this he divests himself of all pretensions to being involved in education. If so, fair enough.)

The upshot of the article is that Nigel ain't too happy with the way things are going. It's all happened too late, which is a bit true. This could have been started earlier but when it comes to officialdom, things take time. Even the feistiest of chief executives don't always get their just deserts. Also Nigel wants legal education to be relevant. Hmmm.

I agree that legal education needs shaking up. I think it's last rethink was somewhere around the 1960s with bits of tinkering since. But to be fair, it hasn't really altered since the 19th century, which for a system built on precedent is going it.

There are fundamental differences between the UK and the US in legal education. We educate undergraduates in law and they teach only graduates. Despite this law schools fall unhappily between serving a profession and inculcating liberal values. Two French sociologists said some time ago that all professions were a marriage of technicality and virtuality (practice and theory [?]). So indeterminacy was central and apprenticeship was necessary to impart the correct ways of thinking.

To me this is the fundamental contradiction of Nigel's article, the conflation of education and training. Although this is not bad in itself, they need to be acknowledged as distinct modes of learning with their own values. Nigel sees education as serving the only the needs of training. And this is how many politicians see education--as a means of wealth creation for the economy. It's almost as though the Greeks never existed.

We have been shy in the UK at vocational learning. We persist with the idea that everyone ideally everyone should pursue the academic route whether it's best for them or not. So maybe it is time for a fragmentation of legal education, a scaling of legal education, a disaggregation of legal education. In part we do this with the transfer route where someone with another degree can take a one-year 'conversion' course into law.

Alternative business structures are only one new part of the new legal regime under the Legal Services Act 2007. Their recruiting and training needs may not be as demanding as conventional legal practices: I don't know. But I don't want to see the professional dog in the guise of the SRA, BSB et al to be seen shaking the tail of legal education because we are not the tail. Tails are important yet we as educators are more important than that. Perhaps there is not sufficient theory in the law curriculum; perhaps we could broaden our scope and be more interdisciplinary: I hope so. And I hope we don't become appendages to training. If we do law will suffer and so will the people who turn to law.

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