Legal educators are being forced to adapt to a rapidly changing market which demands a skills revolution.
Are law schools adapting to meet the needs of the rapidly changing legal services sector or are they, in the words of legal technology guru Professor Richard Susskind, still intent on breeding 20th-century rather than 21st-century lawyers?
Full-service law schools face contrasting demands. Applications for law degrees have increased significantly over the last five years, with 23,740 students accepted for places in 2013, up 2,500 on 2008. But applications and enrolments for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) have fallen sharply, causing some providers to drop them.
Looking ahead, the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s proposals to shift the regulatory focus from the journey to the point of qualification, which will open up alternatives to graduate entry, could have a significant impact on their business models. The pressure will be on them to come up with innovative ways of achieving the ‘day one’ outcomes needed to qualify. The SRA is holding special sessions for legal education providers at its roadshows in Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester later this month. It hopes to produce a consultation paper in the autumn setting out a definition of what a competent solicitor should look like.
While any changes would not come in before the 2017/18 academic year, the more entrepreneurial are already looking at the challenges. A conference at Nottingham Law School’s Centre for Legal Education (7 February) asks – ‘is there any value in legal education at all?’
Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director of education and training, will give the conference an update on emerging issues around the Competence Statement, while Professor John Flood, Leverhulme research fellow, will argue that legal education no longer understands its purpose. ‘Is it to produce lawyers or provide a liberal education in law? It achieves neither,’ he tells the Gazette.
‘Frankly I wonder what the role of the law schools will be,’ says John Wotton, chair of the Law Society’s education and training committee, ‘if the SRA continues on the road it is surveying which is to end-load the process of assessment or appraisal at the point of qualification.’
The Legal Services Board’s vision for legal education, he says, is essentially to de-professionalise it to reduce cost, so it would become function-based training which would give a licence to practise in a specific area of legal work.
‘But I believe very strongly that the legal professional qualification, with a minimum period of experience in practice, has to remain at the core of the legal services sector,’ he says. ‘I think the current elements will remain but the timeline may be very different. But any change will require a big collaborative effort between law schools and the profession.’
With so much on the horizon, how do law schools see the future?
Professor Richard Moorhead, director of the Centre for Ethics and Law at University College London, says lower-ranked law schools will innovate because they need to work harder to attract students and catch the eye of employers, and they are less constrained by some of the conservative cultures of academia.
He agrees with Susskind that there needs to be a greater emphasis on technological and other changes in legal practice. ‘Law schools have to keep up with this area, yet most with international pretensions are already lagging behind the US,’ he says. ‘I teach undergrads about legal services innovation, but this is rare.’
For some law schools, it will mean developing programmes to support alternative routes to qualification. Manchester Law School has been quick off the mark in providing training for a local apprenticeship scheme and materials for the Co-operative Legal Services’ learning academy.
One thing everyone is trying to do, says Flood, Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Westminster, is develop more master’s programmes because they attract overseas students and the fees are unregulated. ‘I don’t know whether law schools see it as a salvation or a supplement but more and more are doing it.’
For Nigel Savage, chief executive and president of the University of Law (UoL), law schools are ‘a bit like the legal profession. They are confused about their role and their positioning in the system. Some of the big research universities have lost touch with the profession, while many of the former polytechnic law faculties have had massive “mission drift”’.
He is not afraid to dish out criticism in a fiercely competitive market in which private sector players UoL and arch-rival BPP Law School use their university status to fight for market share here and internationally, offering cheaper two- and three-year practice-focused LLBs, alongside exclusive deals for bespoke LPCs.
Savage says the private providers have very different agendas to the public sector law schools, where traditionally more than half their students would not take their law degree any further.
‘We are very clear where we fit into the contemporary view of law school as a medical school,’ he says. ‘People who come to us understand from day one what the legal profession is all about, so we are well positioned to lead any change by example.’
When it comes to the LPC, ‘most just whack out one that conforms to the SRA standards’, he says. ‘Make it a genuine post-grad master’s course and it has currency globally. Since we have awarded an LLM for the LPC we have seen a big increase in overseas students coming to the university, particularly from China, who want the practical and employability skills it offers.’
Although the LPC is under fire here because of the cost and difficulty of getting a training contract, Savage says the concept is the ‘envy of the world as a preparation for practice. One of the dangers, not just in England, is the drift back towards admission by exam. But should lawyers be practising their skills at the expense of their clients rather than in a learning environment?’
Cath Sylvester, principal lecturer at Northumbria University’s School of Law, is leading a review of its undergraduate programmes. ‘There will be some law schools that attract good-quality students and are liked by employers so probably feel they don’t need to change,’ she says. ‘But I think, for the majority, this is a huge opportunity to look at what and how we are delivering our courses.’
Sylvester says that if the qualifying law degree (QLD) is relaxed, law schools will be able to deliver it more flexibly. ‘What I hear from employers is that we need to deliver it in a more innovative way to people based in work so we would have to set up courses that could cope with that. Also, we could widen out the syllabus to reflect what the profession is doing with subjects taught in context – elements of tort through sports law, for example.’
Nottingham Law School provides the full range of courses from undergraduate to PhD, as well as international training, and franchises its GDL and LPC to Kaplan Law School. ‘The courses cross-fertilise so undergraduates are taught by staff who are practitioners as well as outstanding academics,’ says its dean, Professor Andrea Nollent. ‘What differentiates us from University of Law and BPP is we don’t take the volume of students and we balance our portfolio across the piece.’
The law school has close links with employers but she says it chose not to do bespoke LPCs because it believes students’ skills need to be transferable.
And while Nollent and her team consult extensively with employers, ‘they aren’t necessarily the arbiters of all things educational’, she says. ‘As an academic law school, we wouldn’t do a two-year degree for instance.’
The dean, who recently returned from Qatar, where she was discussing advocacy training, says the school has ambitious plans: ‘There are lots of ways to exploit our expertise overseas which will enhance our portfolio at home and expose our students to a much more internationalised experience.’
For her, this is the ‘best job in the world. The law school is a business which feeds itself – the better you do the more will come’.
However, other law schools are going hungry. Central Applications Board figures for 2013/14 show enrolments on the GDL down more than 20% in the last two years, with Wolverhampton (30 places) Middlesex (40) and Aston (50) cancelling their courses, and Lincoln (30) pulling out in September.
The National College of Legal Training/University of the West of England and Oxford Brookes pulled out of the LPC last year, blaming falling numbers. Only three providers get over double figures – Nottingham/Kaplan (318), BPP (1,344) and University of Law (2,587) – while the University of South Wales enrolled the fewest at 12. However, while Northumbria has 57 on its LPC, just under 200 students graduate each year having completed a four-year degree incorporating the LPC.
Despite falling numbers, Moorhead and Savage maintain the market has not turned against the LPC and argue it is getting back into equilibrium with the number of training contracts, though they acknowledge there is still a backlog from past oversupply.
For Sophia Dirir, the new chair of the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division, ‘the most obvious answer is for law schools to reduce their extortionate fees. If students weren’t at risk of throwing away £10,000-plus without then securing a training contract, they would probably be more inclined to go to law school. As it stands, most potential students just aren’t willing to spend that kind of money when the odds of success are so low’.
As reported by the Gazette, only a fraction of students enrolled on LPCs are obtaining training contracts before or during their courses.
The position is different at the private providers which run bespoke LPCs. At BPP’s Holborn centre, 70% have training contracts, though Peter Crisp, dean of BPP Law School, says the percentage is much lower in the regions.
With this in mind, BPP has taken a gamble in offering a ‘career guarantee’ to LPC students who started in September. If they have not got a training contract six months after graduating, they can study another qualification for free. ‘They could do an LLM, an accountancy programme or the New York Bar exam,’ explains Crisp. ‘It is a safety net for students. If they did the most expensive course it could cost us £16,000 but, as this is the first year, we won’t know what will happen till early 2015.’
‘Traditional’ universities can’t do that and nor should they, says Matthew Weait, professor of law and policy at Birkbeck College School of Law. ‘BPP and other private sector providers may find that this gives them a competitive edge, but the study of law as an honours degree subject, especially in research-intensive universities, needs to remain an academic subject that delivers intellectual and others skills above and beyond employability per se.’
Law schools are constantly looking to boost their reputations and one growing trend is for international programmes – King’s College London offers a joint four-year LLB/JD in English and American law with Columbia University in New York, while Nottingham offers a joint degree in European and common law with Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Commercial practice Osborne Clarke has introduced a series of modules for its trainees and junior lawyers to bridge the gap between the LPC and practice, which it believes will create a unique selling point to clients.
Mind the gap
‘You need to differentiate between the work done by highly qualified individuals and the commoditised process-driven work,’ says HR director David Shufflebotham. ‘We do both but we feel if clients are going to be paying for excellent legal work then they need to know they are getting the real deal.’
It put its idea for Q3D – a suite of modules which cover seven practice areas broken down into 40 topics – out to tender. It chose BPP, which has also taken over provision of the GDL and LPC for their prospective trainees from the University of Law.
About 75 trainees and associates up to three years’ PQE have taken the modules, which they study while they are working, explains head of knowledge development Jessica Magnusson. ‘We will explore using this approach in our international offices later this year when we develop the programme to build in opportunities for lawyers to do a master’s degree.’
The modules start with a multiple-choice test to identify gaps, which no one has yet passed first time. The topics are then revised through a mix of theory and practical guidance with an assessed presentation at the end. They then sit a final multiple-choice test, which they are expected to pass with 100%, with the option of re-retakes if necessary.
‘This absolutely isn’t a criticism of the LPC,’ stresses Shufflebotham. ‘What we want to do is accelerate our young lawyers’ ability to advise clients. People say technical expertise is a given. But we don’t take that for granted – we require our lawyers to demonstrate it.’
One big issue for law schools is the drop in part-time study, which Weait says is ‘catastrophic. The government needs to address this as a matter of priority. Part-time study is one of the most effective engines of social and economic mobility.
‘A significant proportion of part-time learners on law degrees will have been working in an administrative or paralegal role in law firms. They are often extremely well-motivated and commercially aware. They are also more likely to be women and members of BME communities, and policies which reduce part-time study opportunities are de facto, if not de jure, indirectly discriminatory.’
With so many different pressures, are law schools developing the lawyers the profession needs? Employers often complain that graduates are not ‘work ready’ or commercially aware enough – but how far can law schools go in preparing students for practice?
For Osborne Clarke, the answer has been to introduce a series of modules to ‘bridge the gap’ between the LPC and practice (see box, above).
Employers differ and are often ‘a bit casual’ about their own responsibilities, says Moorhead. ‘But I think law schools do need to up their game for the health of the discipline as much as for employability reasons. We need to be more engaged with practice and practice needs to accept us as critical friends.’
‘If anything I would have thought that most trainees in the modern climate are more than work ready,’ says the JLD’s Dirir, ‘given that the majority spend some considerable time post-LPC working as paralegals before securing a training contract. But it is a two-way process and firms signing up to accept trainees must take their training responsibilities very seriously’.
In his book Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Susskind argues that new jobs and disciplines are emerging, such as legal knowledge engineering, legal process analysis, legal project management and legal risk management, but few educators are adapting their curricula to reflect these new ways of working.
There is a strong argument for re-imagining the curriculum and populating law schools with academics and professionals with different areas of expertise, says Weait. ‘I am agnostic as to whether some of these areas are suitable for undergraduate study, but they would certainly be appropriate in qualifying master’s-level degrees. There may be scope here for well-resourced law firms with expertise in these areas to offer modules in degrees at their own expense as part of their corporate social responsibility, or pro bono, work. That would be exciting.’
Savage says that, in the same way that the profession is disaggregating legal services, law schools will have to unbundle legal education. ‘We need to look at those areas which can be commoditised and those which need more intensive learning. We will have to separate courses to allow students to do the bits they want – first year of the LLB and one chunk of the LPC, enough to get a job in a particular sector.’
School with distant horizons
Queen’s University, Belfast, is the first law school in the UK to offer a post-graduate JD (Juris Doctor) American law degree, as a way of expanding its reputation internationally and attracting overseas students who see their legal career in global terms.
Two students – from Puerto Rico and Australia – started the three-year programme in September and the law school hopes to build up gradually to a maximum of 20. It provides a QLD for entry to the LPC, the New York Bar exam and other overseas vocational training.
Co-ordinator Dr Sara Ramshaw says the JD degree has risen in prestige – so much so that universities outside the US, including in Canada and Australia, have now renamed their second-entry LLB degree as a JD.
‘Adding the JD is one of our responses to changes in legal practice and the legal education market,’ she says. ‘Students are no longer qualifying with a view necessarily to practising in the jurisdiction of their legal studies, while there is a growing market for transnational lawyers.’
One of the attractions of the course for overseas students is the cost; at £12,000 a year, it comes in at a third of that of US law schools.
For BPP’s Crisp, ‘if even 10% of what Susskind predicts happens it will still be a revolution. We have considered whether we ought to include legal project management as part of our programme but the feedback from firms is that it is too early.
‘One has to realise the limitations of what we can do at law school. We have massively improved the skills and knowledge of students taking up training contracts. But it is learning in a simulated environment and we can only take the prospective trainee solicitor so far.’
At Nottingham, Nollent says they do not jump through every hoop that Susskind puts forward ‘but we are very technology-focused. All our LPC students are given an iPad. It is the second year we have been paperless and it has changed the way we work. It doesn’t sound very radical but it is key to equipping them with quite revolutionary skills for legal practice’.
The pressure to give students practical experience is bringing law clinics back to the fore. On 27 February, Northumbria will receive a prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its student law office. At Nottingham, Nollent was speaking against a background of building noise as the university creates new space for the law school’s student legal advice centre.
Looking to the future, she does not profess to divine what the SRA will decide, but says the focus on ‘day one’ outcomes will lead to significant change and ‘we need to be prepared’.
In the meantime, there are plans to build a lot more into the undergrad portfolio than has ever been there before: ‘Students come with an expectation that they will get a great deal more than I ever expected as an undergraduate – but then they are paying a great deal more than I or the state ever paid.’
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist