Those of you who know me will know that I see UG law degrees as liberal degrees which are loosely linked to the legal professions if indeed they must be linked to them at all. As such my concern about the Legal Education and Training Review were that it would recommend greater regulation of undergraduate degrees or the academic stage generally. I was worried about the introduction of greater links between law degrees, vocational training and professional practice as well as about greater prescription of content for law degrees. Now that the LETR has reported and I am mulling over the 300+ pages and reflecting on the report as well as the other documents produced by the review, I thought it may be worth sharing some initial thoughts.
My initial reaction was that there was very little in the report concerning the education part and I thought that was a good thing. I shared the view of many that there really wasn’t much new here and that we seems to have spent a lot of money and waited a long time to have a report which says almost nothing new. However, I have let things sink in a little (and there is more of that to be done) and like some I have changed my mind a little. Even though the report conceded that UG law degrees are generally outside the remit of the review other than when directly impact on the provision of legal services, there are elements of the report which, if taken up by the regulators have significant potential to change law degrees, even if regulation remains light touch.
The Foundations Subjects (See Recommendation 10)
The report suggests there is little appetite for change here and that the idea of foundation subjects is likely to stay. However it also questions whether the balance is correct, whether the rights things are core and whether there should be more fluidity and flexibly as well as more prescription. This does not seem to make sense, can we have flexibility and fluidity and prescription? Well maybe, you could prescribe topics and skills to be covered without specifying modules for example. What concerns me more here is the ‘who decides?’ question. If the foundations are to be revamped, who does the revamping? This is not a level playing field and if, as could easily happen, the agenda is dictated by magic circle law firms, we might end up with something which has a core which is biased in favour of corporate commercial interests but offers little to high street practice never mind those graduates who do not wish to go into the professions. There are already arguments about what is core and what should be core and it would do all of us no harm to remember that what we think is interesting and important is not necessarily core. The LETR report opens the door for a whole scale reform of the foundation subjects, which I don’t really have a problem with, it is what comes next that worries me!
Inclusion of writing/communication and research skills (See Recommendation 6 and 11)
The comments in the report about writing skills and research skills I found a little tricky. On the one hand I sympathise. I teach legal skills and I mark a lot of work produced by students who are lacking in both these areas. On the other hand I was irritated, I teach both writing and research skills. Law Schools are doing this, but perhaps we need to do it more explicitly. On balance I think I therefore welcome the recommendation that:
There should be a distinct assessment of legal research, writing and critical thinking skills at level 5 or above in the Qualifying Law Degree and in the Graduate Diploma in Law. Educational providers should retain discretion in setting the context and parameters of the task, provided that it is sufficiently substantial to give students a reasonable but challenging opportunity to demonstrate their competence. (Recommendation 11)
However, I am also keenly aware that most of the evidence about writing skills etc is anecdotal and I really do think it would be useful to conduct research on students’ skills base to help us better understand where the weaknesses are.
Ethics (See Recommendation 6)
I have always struggled with the debate around the inclusion of ethics in UG law degrees, not because I don’t think ethics should be taught but rather because I don’t think it is possible to teach law without ethics or values. Law is inherently value laden and to me very closely linked to ethics. However, teaching professional ethics as applied to the legal professions has, in my mind, no place in the UG law curriculum. Teaching ethics and values generally definitely has.
Liberal law degrees generally
The report seems to recognise that law degrees are academic degrees and that they should not be vocational. I was interested to see that the Bar are most in favour of liberal degrees. It is also of course worth noting that the responses to the question of whether law degrees should be liberal degrees or more vocationally focused are from people in the professions. I wonder how the pattern of responses would change if people who have law degrees but work in other areas were asked the same question… I digress. So coming from someone who believes in the liberal law degree, the LETR report contains some relevant stuff, whether it is stuff to be concerned about or stuff to celebrate or stuff to just ignore will become clearer in time. The LETR is just the starting point, it’s what comes next that has the potential to change things and that I am a little bit worried about.
Watch this space for more on the issues as I reflect further on the issues raised in the report.