Nottingham Trent Law School Legal Education Debate

In 2011 I attended several ‘debates’ on various legal matters, as a delegate. One thing common to all in relation to its absence was the very thing those in attendance were there to do; debate.

To this end I started thinking, emailing, telephoning and thinking some more. I wanted to panel a debate, not a lecture or series of statements, further, wanted to hear different views, from different people, notably on legal education. I telephoned Becky Huxley-Binns (pictured) and explained my vision. A debate, I contended, where all could freely contribute, law student to experienced academic, paralegal to barrister. Becky seemed excited at the idea and graciously offered to host this event, for which I am eternally grateful.

We agreed upon a panel and we set to work; I started thinking, emailing, telephoning and a panel was almost complete. Becky soon assembled the remainder with the same dedication and worked effortlessly to assimilate a business model to present to Nottingham Law School. The date was set; May 3rd 2012.

Baroness Deech (standing) formally opened the Centre for Legal Education and in her capacity as Chair of the event, provided an insightful and often humorous, introduction to the day. It was to be a debate in the morning, and LETR would hold focus groups in the afternoon.

Each panel member, in brief, stated their vision. As this only took 3-5 minutes per panel member, we were soon on to the debate and the floor was open in a ‘Question Time’ theme, Baroness Deech commenting “I won’t interrupt as much as David does!” To ensure the debate followed a chronological sequence, GCSE Law through to AS/A-Level law opened the debate.

The question was how valuable is a GCSE/AS/A-Level really is? Response from the floor seemed to be mixed, some opposing it saying it has a potential to ‘narrow the mind’ and that a student with a non-law background is preferred when applying to university. Indeed, it was contested by one audience member that A-Level law is not recognised as an A-Level at all.
Becky responded advising that is a myth perpetuated by many and sadly, not generally corrected. Becky has put forth students to Oxford, Cambridge and other notable universities of who have never refused it as a credible A-Level.

My response was from my personal experience. I have taught students that have studied A- Level law and because of it, embarked on their law degree. Conversely, I have taught students from non A-Level law background, but in terms of statistics, this is certainly worthy of research to ascertain if any of the myths are true.

My university peers have at times suggested, and I voiced this during the debate, that they would prefer students who had not studied law because the difference in assessments (essays, exams) is so wide that students think they can hand in work that, whilst may have received top marks at A-Level, simply does not cut it at university. For my part I had to disagree, but appreciate those with that view had many more years’ academic experience than I. I hope I am not proven wrong, but I am more in favour of providing greater support to a student embarking on a law degree so regardless of their background, law or non-law, they are under no illusion as what to expect.

It seems the opinion of some in academia is that students ought to ‘suck it up’, whereas I prefer to guide students which in my humble opinion will get the best out of them.
Moving on to undergraduate level, we discussed the element of a qualifying law degree. Becky’s vision, in part, is thus:

The 7 foundation subjects do not reflect what is great and good about law, about the practice of law or about the role that law has in society. An LLB student can graduate with a degree which does qualify them for the purposes of later legal professional study, but at worst simply requires the student to show superficial knowledge of doctrinal legal rules that can be recited dogmatically as a catechism.

This was hotly debated and it seemed many wish to remain with the status quo. I am inclined to agree with Becky; times have changed, learning methodology has changed so why is it so radical to suggest a change in the modules of a degree model so that it better serves its purpose for today’s market? And, should ‘we’ (educators) be regulated as much as we are? Certainly business ought not to dictate what we facilitate, but we need to be aware of what they expect from their law students. If we fail to recognise that, we are not putting our graduates on the market with enough business sustenance, thus leaving firms hungry for more.

In that respect some educators present said “leave us to educate, not regulate, and for practice to get graduates ready to practise”. I can appreciate this point, but unless we give our graduates the best possible head start, they will fail at interview. David Urpeth (pictured) commented that he had interviewed many potential trainees, of the highest calibre, academically, but they lacked basic commercial awareness. I am not suggesting students study for an MBA, but including an element of commercial awareness is vital in my opinion.

Baroness Deech begged the question “What is Commercial Awareness?”. A great question for which there is no simple answer. What it is not, is allowing a trainee to pick up a case, spend £30k working it when prima facie; it will only yield £5k. That type of awareness is required and firms do not wish to waste money, in today’s “Double Dip” recession, this is prevalent more than ever.

LPC/BPTC was then considered. I provided that my “Dream LLB” would see students studying for just 3 years and be ready to practise law, whether it be as a solicitor or barrister. How? Strip the ‘optional’ modules, keep those that are required for a QLD (subject to change, vide supra, Becky) and replace them with elements of either the LPC or BPTC, depending on which profession you wish to enter. I was asked why and what is the purpose of doing this?

A) Money. Students are loaded with debt when they leave law school. Students then have to decide whether they wish to become a solicitor or barrister, each attracting high additional fees. A degree that combined the LPC or BPTC may cost a little more than a current law degree, but could shave potentially thousands from the end cost.

B) Time. It takes 3 years to obtain a QLD (with exception, part-time, distance learning et cetera) and a further 1 (full-time) or 2 (part-time) years to study the professional element. 5 years before entering the market? A lot changes in 5 years. People change in 5 years. To be ready and working in 3 years is what is required as students need to be earning money quicker now, probably more now than ever before given the increase in student fees.

Baroness Deech commented “what about legal aid? Those that enter that element do not do so for the money”. I agreed but they still have debts to pay off. I’m not suggesting all law graduates are money grabbers; yes some are attracted to law for its ‘perceived benefits’. Not all lawyers earn £300k a quarter (some I have worked for earn more than that), they are few and far between; they are generally equity partners in City firms. But lawyers, junior, legal aid or otherwise, still need to pay off their debts, regardless of where they wish to practise.

Nazmin Akthar (pictured) wanted to take it a step further. She asked could solicitors and barristers be fused, leaving the graduate with more career options. There seems to be some confusion as to the question of whether or not one should take the LPC route, and if that does not work out, try the BPTC, and vice versa as one student pointed out. What is clear is some students do not necessarily want to become a barrister or solicitor; they want employability in an unstable market.

Baroness Deech commented that the two, Solicitor and Barrister, are quite different in nature, and that she felt more comfortable being represented by someone who set out to become one or the other, and not either. David Urpeth commented, as a solicitor advocate with higher rights, the only important factor to consider is that the best person is doing the job, not what route they took to get there.

This lead nicely to Baishali Majumdar (pictured) pointing out she felt, at times, the legal profession is not diverse enough, despite its efforts. Those with merit are still overlooked in favour of nepotism, Baishali provided an example and advised this practise needs to stop.

It was clear diversity is still an issue, the matter is being dealt with head on, but alas, this was steering away a little from the heart of the debate, but a worthy addition nonetheless, and I’m sure one issue that will not end here.

One question that came from the floor was that our visions lacked ‘vision’ or ‘excitement’. It was commented that there is a lack of flare in teaching and we, as educators, as was the person making the comment, should be looking to educate with innovative methods. Becky clearly educates with flare, any of her students would stand testament to that fact.

To demonstrate in practise what my vision was, I took my iPad out to the audience and gave a brief overview of one of my past lectures. Things were getting interactive! In essence, I made it clear that through the medium of technology, one can innovate and interact with students and make legal learning exciting, and no matter at what stage the learner is at. This was why I champion the use of simulations not only as a way of getting the student ready to use similar billing software in practise, but to gain their interest early on. ‘Learn and do’ is the best way, in my opinion.

In conclusion, the debate started well and many interesting opinions were shared and debated, agreements were few but it allowed for an interesting debate which was what Becky and I had hoped for. There was in my opinion, at times, a view among a handful that experienced academics and practitioners ought to be tackling the subject, which is ironically one of the reasons I co-founded the debate, to tackle misconceptions of who counts. The answer is simple, we all have a role to play, to educate and assist one another in the facilitation of learning, as the student is the focus, not the educators or practitioners. Baroness Deech quite rightly pointed out, they, the students, are our defenders in the years to come.

We need to get it right now, so they get it right for us, tomorrow.

© Gary Lee Walters, 2012


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