Practical changes to legal education in the UK

13 Oct 2016 | 4 min read
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Richard Moorhead, UCL Professor of Law and Professional Ethics, considers possible routes of change for legal education in the UK and the tensions between study and practice in the current system.

How do you expect the provision of legal education at university level, namely the LLB, to change and adapt in order to attract the best students and promote the legal profession while also meeting market demands?

We’re likely to see greater difference between law schools, catering to different kinds of students, and with relationships with different segments of the legal profession. The changes being proposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB) mean some degrees will look more like a blend of degree and Legal Practice Course (LPC) but also that some law schools will evolve more imaginative and—I hope—multidisciplinary curricula.

Have there been any recent proposals to change the structure or content of this course—for example, many argue the study of contract law in the first leaves students unprepared for when they next come across it, possibly four or more years later in their LPC?

Let’s take the SRA proposals. They will, in theory, allow total freedom over the content of the law degree. The current Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) requires a significant degree of rigidity, and one response to that rigidity is to get all the core courses out of the way straight away. Once the QLD goes, if it goes, there is room for fresh thinking. Practice needs to find ways of interesting academia in its concerns rather than saying things, such as, you need to teach contract later. In particular, practice has to get academics interested in researching in areas of common interest. Take contract, for example. There is an emerging body of work looking at how law firms draft contracts and how they might influence behaviour. Get more academics doing that and they will teach better contract courses.

What are the barriers to change and how are the standards set by the SRA and the BSB?

The barriers to change are historical, cultural, and regulatory. Regulatory change has the potential to reduce the barriers if done sensibly. Practice does not always understand the education and research mission of universities. Some sneer at the latter and see the former as an indulgence—this is mostly based on a shallow understanding of what really goes on in university and why. Equally, academia needs to understand practice better too and can sharpen up its act on a number of fronts. Practice creates and manages knowledge in ways law schools can’t. There is a lot of chaotic experience in practice that academics could work on with you given the right relationships and opportunities. We have a lot to learn from each other and need to learn to work together better.

Do you expect the LLB to become more practically minded like the LPC, perhaps placing more graded weight on modules focusing on core legal research skills and client protocol?

I expect a bit of this. Some schools will go down this route with gusto but such an approach is not among the most inspiring of ideas about the future of legal education. University is not a trade school. If we think about the future of legal practice, we see intersections between law and business, psychology, technology and data science. Educational models that equip lawyers to understand these things are likely to be much more exciting, interesting and beneficial to society, their clients, and their employers ultimately.

Could pro bono and voluntary activities like legal advice clinics and housing contract checking become mandatory features on the course?

This is unlikely. It is command and control regulation of a rather backward-looking kind. Most law schools want to and do run clinics. Compulsion is a red herring.

How does the provision of legal education in the UK compare with other jurisdictions? Have other countries been more pro-active in modernising and adapting their degree offerings, incorporating more language and business-orientated modules as opposed to traditional legal subjects for instance?

Incorporating languages and business models are ideas from the eighties. The latter has more mileage than the former in terms of really thinking about the intersections between law and business but in reality the two domains are usually taught separately without producing much genuinely fresh thinking about legal practice.

Interviewed by Bridget O’Connell.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

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