This article argues the case for a closer partnership between university law clinics and the legal profession. The University of Bristol Law Clinic (Bristol Clinic) will be used to exemplify the potential benefits of such a partnership. The model developed by the Bristol Clinic serves three functions: firstly, it addresses academic concerns raised by Law Schools regarding the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE); secondly, it will bridge the gap that is created by the removal of the vocational stage (comprising the Legal Practice Course and the two-year training contract); and thirdly, it enables students to develop legal reasoning and advocacy skills by applying moral and philosophical theories to real-life situations.
Those wishing to qualify will need to pass the new SQE, which will be introduced no earlier than September 2020. A Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) or the Graduate Diploma in Law will no longer be required. For law firms, this means that future solicitors may not have had the benefit of successfully completing a QLD or the vocational stage of training.
The SQE will consist of two stages. Stage 1 (Functioning Legal Knowledge) will be assessed through multiple choice questions. Stage 1 does not require candidates ‘to recall case names or cite statutory authority except where specified and they will not be assessed on the development of the law’. This is a serious omission, given the central role that judicial decisions occupy in a Common Law jurisdiction. Stage 2 (Practical Legal Skills) will assess skills such as client interviewing and practical legal research. Candidates will also need to complete workplace training (24 months). The SRA defines qualifying work experience as ‘legal work that provides the opportunity to develop the prescribed competences for solicitors currently set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence’. It is important to note that the SRA will only require candidates to be given the ‘opportunity to develop’ the prescribed competences. This is a much lower standard than is required by the current training-contract model. After September 2020, unless they have worked at the same law firms for two years, solicitors will not necessarily have had the benefit of two years of supervision under the same law firm. Under the new route, qualifying work experience could include for example, working in a university law clinic. This will therefore provide a significant opportunity for law clinics to be involved in the process of ensuring that those entering the profession gain the relevant knowledge in terms of theory and practice.
The model devolved by the Bristol Clinic differs from the majority of other university clinics, in that students are taught that lawyering skills necessarily have a strong theoretical underpinning. The starting point is combining theory of the law with the duty-based approach of the Code of Conduct. The Bristol Clinic applies this duty-based model to legal ethics and training. This model has a number of advantages over others. Firstly, students analyse the meaning of ‘act[ing] in the best interests of each client’, using the concepts of autonomy and paternalism to ensure that client consent is informed and valid. This allows students to enhance their reflective learning skills, whilst it also ensures that they avoid any confirmation bias. Secondly, students must critically reflect on the relevant law, and identify areas which require reform. Thirdly, students are introduced to ethical dilemmas encountered in litigation, such as the tension between acting in a client’s best interest and cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses, or acting in the client’s best interest and their own educational aspirations. Fourthly, it promotes reflective learning by ensuring that students understand that in addition to the duty owed to their clients, they also have a duty to the court and third parties. Fifthly, students are trained to develop litigation strategies.
How can law clinics benefit law firms then? Students who have successfully completed a law clinic programme, similar to that in the Bristol Clinic, are well equipped to meet the demands of private practice; applying doctrinal and lawyering skills in a practical context. While doctrinal analysis is an essential skill in client representation, students are also taught skills such as practical legal research, factual investigation and mediation. It is important to note that these highly transferable skills are equally important and relevant to students who decide they do not want to train to be a solicitor.
The Bristol Clinic bridges the gap between theory and practice by ensuring that graduates will have the relevant knowledge for careers as solicitors, the Bar or as policy-makers. It also addresses the main concerns levelled at the SQE e.g. the absence of critical analysis. The introduction of this type of training means that the law degree (whether at Undergraduate or Masters level) will remain the most important route of entry to the legal professions.
Omar Madhloom is a solicitor and teaching fellow (law clinic) at the University of Bristol Law School