Category Archives: Legal Education

The one where city firms are good at diversity and the SQE is a good thing

‘A parallel universe is a hypothetical self-contained reality co-existing with one’s own’ – says Wikipedia. Well today I found myself in one. The escalator from the ground floor to the basement of Kings Place in London is a portal between universes. That really is the only explanation for what happened today – at least the only one that makes any real sense.

I was at the Legal Cheek event: The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference. I was already irritated by the 8.30am start and the fact that all the breaks were termed ‘networking breaks’. I can’t get to London for an 8.30 networking breakfast. I got there and sat down just in time for the intro from Alex from Legal Cheek who really just plugged their exclusive survey saying that students are skeptical of the SQE and want more law tech included in their programmes. Well, from the brief bits he presented I doubt it’s that simple. Who exactly was asked what exactly and did they really understand what they were being asked? Some of the answers reported suggest that perhaps they did not. In fact a lot of what was said today suggests that the people who really ought to understand it (like the people invited to talk about it) don’t understand it. I could go through presentation by presentation and summarise it all for you but I value my mental health and my heart rate profile for today is quite erratic enough so let’s do this thematically. Here are the things that jumped out at me

  1. There were important voices missing. What we saw and heard today was a particular vision of law and lawyering which is not the law or the legal services that most of us (and certainly not most of the general public) engage in or come in contact with. It is rich mans law, it’s corporate, commercial and fundamentally about making already filthy rich clients more money. It is not about justice, it’s not about people, not about the social or the political, not about making the world a better place, not about harnessing the power (symbolic or otherwise) of law and lawyers to solve the big problems of the world. It was everything that makes people hate lawyers. I think it is what caused that flicker of disappointment in my mum’s face when I told her I wanted to study law and become a solicitor. It’s everything so many students think they should want even when they don’t.
  2. The SQE or at least the impact it is already having on universities and will certainly have on legal education is really poorly understood. Let me be clear. The SQE is an exam. It is not a programme, course or anything of that nature. It’s an exam. It therefore cannot deliver, in its own right, things like greater innovation, incorporation of tech, greater variety, cognitive diversity, any sort of diversity, thinking skills, improved written communication skills, resilience, creativity, project management and self management skills or commerciality. The only thing the SQE can do is test someones ability to pass the SQE. The preparation for the SQE might attempt to encourage some of those things but of course only if they are part of the SQE – which they are not. Many speakers made the assumption that legal knowledge would still be gained through law degrees and conversion courses – but why would that be the case? No law degree is required and many law schools will be under huge pressure to provide an SQE focused degree for fear of not recruiting students otherwise.
  3. There is a fundamental mismatch between what employers appear to want and say solicitors need (what they say they want – I’m not always convinced that they know what they mean when they say these things though) and what the SQE tests. There was much talk of creativity, thinking critically and differently, problem solving, managing yourself and learning how to fail and being more resilient. The SQE cannot test those things and other than for a small number of elite and very brave non-elite institutions the SQE means a move away from those things and towards learning to pass the multiple choice tests
  4. In spite of all the work done by the learned associations, all the SQE rhetoric is still operating on the assumption that what we do in universities is somehow not relevant to practice, can’t be quality assured and is not to be trusted. Varying pass rates, different curricula, different approaches and different assessments are presumed to mean that standards cannot be guaranteed. The problem about fitness to practice which is what regulation ought to be concerned is avoided and instead turned into a fundamental distrust of academics. But I agree with Richard Moorhead on this – the problem is more likely to be at the work place training end. The ridiculous consistency of people passing their training contracts is far more worrying than different institutions having different pass rates at LLB and LPC to me.
  5. There are apparently still people who think the SQE can deliver equality, diversity and inclusion benefits. There’s no evidence of this. If it reduced the cost of qualifying dramatically, maybe, but it can’t do this – you still need a degree, you’ll have to pay for the test, you’ll have to prepare for the test, you may fail the test and have to do it again… This cannot be significantly cheaper than degree plus LPC and funding option may disappear (for example the availability of loans for Masters degrees means that many LPCs are available in LLM versions so funding is available). The type of assessment has diversity implications and I just don’t see the SRA taking this seriously. They say they will fully test and analyse the statistics including by protected characteristics… but the fact still is that if you can pay to practice repeatedly then you are more likely to be successful. AND THAT IS NOT NEUTRAL
  6. Obviously we did not really talk about the ghettoisation of legal service provision and how the SQE might widen the gap between magic circle and high street. I can’t help thinking about the careers adviser I had at my school. When she saw my choice of A-levels and what I wanted to do with my life she said, well you won’t get into vet school – why not be a vet nurse? I said that I wanted to go to uni though and she asked me what for and why I’d want to waste my time doing a degree if I could get a job. I wonder what she will be telling kids at that school about becoming a solicitor, whether she understands the differences between solicitors and different firms and that the cheapest, most obvious route via an SQE ready degree might look great for these kids but is likely to funnel them into dead end paralegal jobs. I can’t help thinking about the girl at that same school who wanted to be a human rights lawyer but didn’t think she would be accepted anywhere because she came from the council estate down the road. Her teachers were telling her to stay local because she’d fit in better. I told her to be bold, that it would be awful at times, that it was a different world but that as much as I love working for the sort of institutions that I have worked for and now work for, they are sometimes just not good enough – she went to an elite uni- hated it but got to where she wanted to be. I can’t help thinking about the countless conversations with students about what they want to do, about repeatedly having to say – great – but you will have to do more and be better than those at Russel Group institutions, you will have to work harder and you will have to be lucky. And that’s without creating a real division in types of programmes. With the introduction of the SQE those who need the rigorous academic degrees most to help them to get to where they want to be are even less likely to access them. I feel utterly defeated by this.
  7. Of the lawyers or former lawyers who spoke, all totally normalised long hours. There was talk of 90 hour weeks and it was framed in terms of work ethic and being ambitious. I’m sorry but working 90 hours a week is not ambitious, it’s not having a good work ethic, it’s, pardon the language, fucking stupid! Maybe the perceived competency problem and consumer complaints are actually problems of exhaustion and not being able to function and of burn out and having been ground down. This is insanity! And no resilience is not about learning to deal with that shit. That’s not resilience. You have not failed if you can’t work those hours – you are human.  Oh and maternity leave – it’s for baby things (what do I know!) and having coffee with your friends etc – it is not for re-training, setting up your business, working yourself to death… and if you take a part time job 4 days a week you don’t have the other 3 days to work on your business. Just stop. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.
  8. There are people who see the SQE as a massive opportunity and apparently think that it will free law schools from the shackles of regulation to be free to innovate. No no no just no. This is just so naive. The SQE will have a huge impact and makes it more difficult to innovate not easier. The SQE can actually only deliver on some of its promises if law schools take on the role of training students for it. The SRA is banking on this happening. (I say let them bank on it and screw them, let’s just collectively decide we’re not doing that and instead uphold the integrity and rigour of our programmes). So what happens to in depth teaching of legal subjects? Family Law?  Social Welfare Law? International Law? Anything Socio-legal? The underlying assumption here is also really problematic. We’re not sitting around in our ivory towers happily doing what has always been done. We are constantly thinking about how we can change things, teach differently, engage our students, help them achieve those light bulb moments…
  9. Who chose who was invited to speak? Why weren’t the learned associations asked? Why not those who actually research these issues? With one or two notable exceptions is was an impressive line up of non-experts, people sort of wheeled out as representing something when in fact legal services weren’t represented well, law schools weren’t and in spite of Alex’s insistence that the student voice was really important to Legal Cheek there wasn’t a single student speaker.

I could probably go on and on and on but this gives you a flavour. I’m still a bit confused by it all. And I’m exhausted from trying to understand, from trying to work out what it is I’m missing, from forcing myself to have the confidence to know I’m right on this because the thing that perhaps took me by surprise the most is how easily my confidence in what I know and believe can be rocked by a bunch of men in suits spouting utter nonsense. After all, what could a girl from a small town in West Yorkshire possibly know about this? It took a two mile people and cyclist dodging run to clear my head and restore some sanity.

This conversation is going to continue and I’ll be back to participate but for now please do chat amongst yourselves while I re-charge.

Call for Papers: LETR 5 years on

I am really excited that my institution is hosting a one day event next June (25th June) to celebrate (if that’s the right word? Maybe ‘mark’ is better) 5 years since the publication of the Legal Education and Training Review. It’s going to be a great event. We already have representatives from the professional bodies as well as most of the original research team confirmed as speakers. In addition Professor Anthony Bradney has agreed to give the closing keynote. I can’t wait. The call for papers is ready but of course all distribution and membership lists have closed down for the Christmas break, getting anything on the Law school website might not happen until January either and getting the call out there is just really difficult at this time of year.

We are however working to relatively tight deadlines with abstracts due by the 29th January and this might be the one week where academics have just that little bit of time to think about abstracts and papers (who am I kidding, most of us are too tired to function!). So here it is:

LETR 5 Years on – call for papers

And for those of you who (like me) find clicking on a link too much like hard work as you reach for another mince pie, here’s what you need to know:

We now invite submission of abstracts for papers which explore any aspect of the LETR and subsequent developments. Topics might include but are not limited to

  • Who are tomorrow’s lawyers and who should be educating/training them?
  • What are Law Degrees for?
  • Routes to qualification for solicitors, barristers and legal executives
  • Education and training for paralegals
  • The value of a liberal legal education
  • The impact of LETR and subsequent developments on specific substantive areas
  • Impact of the LETR and subsequent developments on Law Schools
  • International comparisons
  • The Futures of Legal Education and Training

Please submit your abstract of no more than 500 words to Dr Jessica Guth by email (j.guth@leedsbeckett.ac.uk) stating 3-5 keywords which will help us group related papers together. The deadline for submission is 5pm on Monday 29th January 2018. We will make decisions on the abstracts and put together a preliminary programme by Friday 9th February.

It’s going to be a great day and I look forward to seeing your abstracts. If you want to come but don’t want to present anything, booking for the event will open in February and we will keep the cost of the event to a minimum. Watch this space!

Brexit and Law Schools – my thoughts

I attended an event at Northumbria University today. It was titled Brexit and the Law School and I was asked to contribute some thoughts on ‘Learning, Teaching and the University: The Changing Shape of the University Community’. Below is a summary of my brief talk. I’ll try and summarise the rest of the day’s discussion in another post

  1. Law Schools are, in my view, distinct little communities within the wider university community, within the wider local, regional and national communities and, again in my view, communities are shaped by those who inhabit them. Therefore, to understand the impact of Brexit on Law Schools we need to understand how Brexit might change the make-up of the Law School and university communities and what that change might mean on the ground
  2. So how will the make-up of Law School and University inhabits change post Brexit? We don’t know!
  3. Here’s what we do know
  • UCAS figures show that applications from UK students for Law Courses for 2017 entry are up by 7% whereas applications from EU students are down 3%
  • UCAS figures also show that applications from UK students across the board for 2017 entry are down by 4%, whereas applications from EU students are down by 6%
  • The proportion of EU students studying law is relatively small when compared to the proportion of EU students studying some other subjects
  • The number and proportion of EU students varies quite dramatically between institutions
  • There is lots of anecdotal evidence that EU national academic staff are considering or actively looking to leave the UK and work elsewhere in Europe or the rest of the world
  • There is also anecdotal evidence of EU nationals discounting the UK as a possible destination for work
  • However there is also anecdotal evidence of EU national colleagues making plans to stay in the UK long term and also of some recruitment of EU national staff since the referendum
  • The UCU survey about academics’ views on Brexit suggests that 76% of non-UK national academics are considering leaving the UK. That’s pretty damning. However, I would urge caution over that figure because ‘considering’ is very different from ‘planning to’ and the considering may be the result of quite significant uncertainty. Thing may change as we get clarification on what rights exactly will be available to our EU colleagues

4. This leads me on to what these figures don’t tell us

  • Whether they are a trend or a blip. The applications for Law from EU nationals are still higher in number than for the 3 years running up to 2016 so was 2016 just a bumper year and we are returning to ‘normal’?
  • What will the figures be over the next 5-10 years? Only once we know that can the data really tell us something about whether Brexit had a significant impact on the number of EU national (law) students in the UK
  • If it is more than a blip, is it really Brexit or the uncertainty around Brexit that has caused the drop?

5. In short we don’t know how the make-up of Law School inhabitants might change. We really don’t. But let’s assume the worst – that we will loose the majority of our EU students and colleagues and that we will loose access to the Erasmus+ programme and research mobility/exchange programmes – what would the impact of that be? Well I think it would be devastating. I think we could see

  • a shift on who and what is valued in Law Schools
  • a more inward looking and insular approach to scholarship and teaching
  • less engagement with EU and international issues and in particular with non-common law issues and approaches
  • less well rounded curricula -explicit and hidden
  • a reduction in the opportunities to learn from each other and a loss of the sort of creativity that happens when you tackle a problem together with people who bring different ways of thinking and doing things to the table
  • less tolerance for different ideas and approaches and ways of thinking
  • less well rounded lawyers – whether academics, practitioners or ‘just’ citizens of (a possibly much more narrowly defined) world

So my question really is – how do we make sure that we don’t become insular and inward looking law schools that irrelevant to the rest of the world or possibly just irrelevant?

The Association of Law Teachers

So, we’re heading for a general election. I don’t quite know what to say about that and anything I might say wouldn’t be exactly uplifting. Let’s therefore turn our attention to something happier and more exciting for a few moments. Last week I was at the excellent Association of Law Teachers annual conference and last week my term as Vice Chair came to an end. I became Chair.

I am excited, honoured and not just a little bit daunted to lead this amazing organisation for the next two years. In many ways the Association is my tribe, my people, the place I feel I can most be myself in this strange world we call academia. A group of people ‘passionate about legal learning’ and committed to understanding learning, teaching and all things legal education – what could be more inspiring than that? I have been a member of the Association since I got my first lectureship and have been part of the committee since shortly after that, first as Membership Secretary, then as Vice Chair and now as Chair. I have enjoyed it, learned a lot, met great people and been inspired to do my job better.

We are in exciting (is that the right word?) times. Things are changing and they are changing fast. Higher Education is changing, the legal services market is changing, legal education and training is changing – and not all for the better I would argue. All this change makes it it more important than ever that we talk to each other, learn from each other, help each other understand what is going on and what the impacts might be and that we make our voices heard. The ALT can help us all do that. Over the next two years I hope to see our membership grow. Not only will this help add power to our voice(s) and make sure the ALT continues to represent law teachers across the sectors but it will also allow us to put more back into the membership, offer more opportunities in terms of events, grants and prizes and secure our future as one of the key learned associations.

It is a genuine privilege to follow in the footsteps of the amazing Chris Ashford and fabulous Rebecca Huxley-Binns and all the other great Chairs the Association has seen over the years. I wouldn’t be able to do the job without the support of a fantastic committee of volunteers who all work unbelievably hard for the ALT. I thank them in advance for putting up with me for the next two years!

You can find more information about the Association on the website (it will be updated in due course) and you can engage with the Association on Twitter and Facebook. Please do join if you are a law teacher – at any level. The support, information, friendships and advice I got through being a member have been invaluable.

 

 

Equality and Diversity in Legal Education 3

And here’s the third and final part of  my reflections on the workshop on Equality and Diversity in Legal Education. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here.

After lunch we had another set of parallel sessions and I chaired Session 2B. The  first paper picked up the theme of ‘polish’ and helping students to assimilate. Dominic De Saulles took a pragmatic view that the legal culture at the Bar is what it is and then considered our responsibilities and duties to those of our students aspiring to the bar.img_1422

He noted the significant ethical challenges we face in helping or even encouraging students to join that legal culture which might mean they have to ascribe to values they find unpalatable and lose some of their sense of self in doing so. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Kantian ethics justification for helping students learn to pass as barristers but I need to think about this a bit more. It seems to me that what would be more valuable is to talk about resistance and how things might be changed but I also accept that for that to be possible these non-authentic lawyers need to get into the professions otherwise there is little hope of a revolution from within! Dominic had some lovely pictures on his slides and one of my favourites was this one which shows img_1426a court room with lots of people doing things they shouldn’t be – the defendant is pleading guilty thus depriving lawyers of income, one advocate has lost the plot and is showing emotion, another id ducking rather than standing up for his client….

The second paper was given by Elisabeth Griffiths and grappled with hierarchies of rights and protection under the Equality Act 2010 and how this might play out in employer networks. She had some really interesting data on networks (or lack of networks) and we had an interesting discussion about how effective those networks might be and how much they are just for show or for ticking boxes.

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I was also interested in Elisabeth’s comments about how doing this research has impacted on her teaching and is leading her to be less doctrinal in her approach. I do think what and how we research can have an impact on how we teach certain topics. I guess this is an argument for having people teaching in areas where they are also research active but I think it probably also says something about the relationship between research and teaching more generally. I have weekend brain though so I’ll wait to think about that a bit more until I am back on working day brain!

The day finished with a roundtable with Pat Leighton asking what is special about researching equality and diversity; Charlotte O’Brien offering comments on teaching equality and diversity in the very contested Brexit context and Debra Malpass of the SRA providing some information about a call for statistical analysis and a data workshop coming up shortly (sorry I tuned out on the project call because I can’t do stats). The roundtable touched on many of the thoughts I’d had throughout the day – we need more and better information about how inequalities are playing out across legal education and training and in the professions. We need longitudinal data, we need data that is richer and deeper than a questionnaire will offer, we need high quality qualitative empirical data and we need high quality clear and comprehensive quantitative data and we need to keep talking – to each other, to our students, to those in the profession and to anyone who will listen – and, perhaps more importantly than all of those – to those who don’t want to listen. Yes, most of all we need to be talking to them!