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The sufficiency of legal training in England and Wales

About The Author

Chris Bridges (Executive Editor)

Chris is an IT and Data Protection solicitor at a top 20 full service firm and the founder of Keep Calm Talk Law. He also contributes to Computers and Law and other sector specific publications.

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The present structure of legal training within England and Wales has for a long time come under fire for not being sufficient. These complaints come on a number of grounds:

  • the UK qualifying law degree is not of any use to an aspiring lawyer;
  • LPC providers accept too many hopeful lawyers onto their courses, without any warning about the high failure rate among those seeking training contracts;
  • LPC providers do not provide sufficient useful training;
  • The whole process is too costly for both aspiring barristers and solicitors.

I address each of these concerns in turn.

The Value of a Law Degree

Lord Sumption, one of the UK’s senior judges is an advocate of doing a non-law degree and then doing the Graduate Diploma in Law in order to practice as a barrister or solicitor. He believes it is far more beneficial learning a language, reading English or History, or studying Mathematics.

His reasoning? A law degree does not provide the same degree of wide culture as you would obtain from studying something else before converting. This is an oft-spoke reason for not doing a law degree, so nothing new here. He adds further, that your imagination is at its best at university age, and the study of law does not offer the same scope for intellectual curiosity largely due to the closed nature of source material (the assumption being that statute and precedent only offer binary answers).

He also believes that “Most arguments which pretend to be about law are actually arguments about the correct analysis and categorisation of the facts”; once the facts are understood, you just need to reason “in a respectable way towards it”. He asserts that other degrees such as classics, history or mathematics prepare you just as well as a law degree for this. Read with the first two points, there is no reason to read law at university as you will make a stronger lawyer by diversifying. If this is the case, can law degrees really be sold as vocational?

However, this argument is not irrefutable. Martin George, a former Land Law lecturer of mine, gave a convincing presentation disagreeing with Lord Sumption a number of months ago, the footage of which is available on YouTube.

Immediately, Martin George addressed something that was niggling on my mind after reading Lord Sumption’s opinions; the idea that a law degree does not offer the same opportunity for using your imagination, or exercising your intellectual curiosity, due to the binary nature of source material.

Whilst it is true that in many cases the law is binary, that does not mean my former lecturers expected a binary answer. If a binary answer was given, I would have expected, at best, a low 2(II) for my work, and I quote from the then in force marking criteria:

For a 2(II):

The discussion will show only limited evidence that the writer has a point of view on the issue at hand

For a first:

The work will show a capacity for independent thought (with appropriate reference to case law and statutes);

The work will show an ability critically to assess arguments made and views express in the relevant literature (…);

The discussion will show evidence that the writer has a point of view on the issue at hand.

I suspect other law schools would have marking criteria not dissimilar to this. Given the above criteria, every problem question included scope for imagination; applying original reasoning to dicta in cases to demonstrate an alternative outcome to the letter of law was crucial to securing you the sought after First. If you chose to tackle an essay question instead, even greater levels of original thought were often needed.

As Martin George astutely puts it: the study of law “offers the same feat of intellectual juggling performed at their best by lawyers and judges: lateral thinking and problem solving”.

Martin goes on to suggest that in fact the study of law involves understanding and curiosity in a number of other disciplines. I completely agree.

You could not study tax law without some understanding of fiscal systems, and the policy behind them. You could not study Medical Law and Ethics without engaging with questions of morality (in fact, I received the worst formative feedback during my university career for sticking to the strict letter of the law in a Medical essay). You could not study land law or trusts and equity without understanding the evolution of the property system, or Company Law without understanding the commercial necessities behind Directors’ Duties and minority protection. You would completely flunk Jurisprudence and Criminology for not getting to grips with philosophical and psychological thinking respectively.

These are just a few examples, and yes, you may get the same insight into these disciplines from other degrees such as History, Classics or English. Therefore, in that sense, you having nothing to lose by reading law at university, nor do you obtain an advantage from studying something other than law, before pursuing a legal career. Lord Sumption says you can always learn the law yourself; the same can be said of literature or history. Just because you do a law degree, it does not mean you can never pick up a novel; I still thoroughly enjoy reading; Dickens, Austen or otherwise.

So what is the answer to this much-asked question? Is a law degree valuable to a career in law?

Yes, it is. However, no more or less so than any other academic degree. Therefore, the answer to ‘to law degree or not to law degree?’ is simply to study whatever interests you.

I personally found law interesting to study as an academic subject, regardless of whether I chose it as a profession. I know many of my peers studied law with no intention of practising. I also know many of my peers were put off the idea of practising by studying law, and I am sure they are glad they discovered this early rather than shelling out over £20,000 to do a GDL and LPC only to find out they hated law. In the end, they have still come away with a good degree and the experience to match.

So, do not consider a law degree as a vocational degree, it is through and through an academic degree, which simply offers a ‘convenient shortcut’ to legal qualification (one which may soon cease to exist).

LPC providers offer too many places

I recently read this article on the Guardian website, which I found distasteful. Whether intentional or not, the author seems to be suggesting that aspiring lawyers should be spoon fed the information required to assess whether they wish to pursue a career in law; “Like all other LPC and BTPC providers, my law school was happy to take nearly £12,000 in fees from me with no consideration given to whether I had any prospect of obtaining a training contract at the end of the course.”

The legal profession is an extremely lucrative one and it therefore attracts candidates of the highest calibre. You would therefore expect prospective lawyers to do their own due diligence before embarking on an LPC course; the high cost alone should make anyone think twice and do their research before embarking on a legal career.

I do however see at least some merit in the author’s suggestion that a move towards a system similar to that in Northern Ireland may be prudent, where a prospective lawyer may only embark on the professional course phase of their training with the support of ‘a master’: your future employer. The LPC is, after all, aimed specifically at future solicitors and is of little use to anyone else. It may give you the edge when hunting for paralegal work, but it is not a requirement and many undertake paralegal work without completing the LPC. If it is transferable skills you want from a professional course, it is arguably far more beneficial obtaining the ACA, the qualification for chartered accountants.

However, would such a system work within England and Wales? Northern Ireland has a much smaller legal sector, and would aspiring lawyers really want to delay their progress further by having to wait many years to find a training contract? Many aspiring solicitors complete the LPC as they do not want to waste any time, believing that the LPC will allow them to start a training contract within a year, rather than the two required otherwise (although it must be said, there are few sizable firms offering training contracts less than two years in advance).

I myself, like many others instead choose to put-off the LPC until a training contract has been secured, not wanting to waste money on a qualification that may never be of any use should a training contract not be obtained.

It may not be what many aspiring lawyers want to hear, but the reality is those hoping to start the LPC will be at least 21, and could potentially be a trainee solicitor within a year; they should be able to do some of their own research without their hand being held. However, in their defence, most aspiring lawyers do seem to undertake this research; most of my peers were troubled about future career prospects in their first year at university.

Therefore, I suggest this problem is overstated. Aspiring lawyers make their own minds on whether to take the risk of self-funding the LPC. Some find the parting with over £12,000 just the motivation they need to step up their hunt for an elusive training contract, others prefer to take to safer approach. Which is right is a personal preference; therefore, it would be wrong for LPC providers to deny you the opportunity to study simply on the grounds they do not think you will get a training contract.

That is not to say an ability assessment would be misplaced. Rightly or wrongly, Kaplan Law School has introduced such an assessment for hopeful BPTC students; but this is a distinct profession with even fewer opportunities considering the small amount of pupillages available. However, as a non-believer of having my hand held through processes, I believe the choice should be left to the hopeful lawyer, and it is a fair assumption to make that they are aware of the difficulty involved in finding a training contract.

Training Quality

As I have unfortunately not yet completed my LPC, it would be unfair for me to comment on the actual quality of the teaching, therefore my assessment is limited to the need for the Legal Practice Course.

The need for the LPC, in my view, cannot be disputed. Other vocations, such as Chartered Accountancy, also have a taught summative stage of assessment / accreditation (the ACA). These courses are intended to lay the foundations for future on-the-job training you will receive. For solicitors, your training is not over until you have completed your two-year training contract, or for barristers after you have completed a year’s pupillage.

However, there is an important difference between the ACA and the LPC. If you obtain a job with an accountancy firm, you will do the ACA alongside your on-the-job training over a three-year period. This is not completely unheard of in the legal profession, and perhaps it is something that should be encouraged among firms. Notably the in-house BT legal graduate scheme adopts this structure. You study for your LPC part time over the first two years alongside your professional obligations, and the third and final year is entirely on-the-job.

I completely agree that apprenticeships and learning on the job are desirable, but I do not see the justification for abolishing the LPC in favour of an entirely on-the-job experience. In this respect, perhaps the BT model is the perfect hybrid solution. This structure of learning is currently being tested in a number of firms, including my future firm, with Chartered Institute of Legal Executive training. If this proves effective, perhaps these firms will lead the way in transitioning to an apprenticeship style learning experience for solicitors also.

The Cost

I do not see much merit in claims that the process is too costly. It would be great if it were cheaper, but you only have to look to other jurisdictions to notice that actually, legal training in the UK is relatively cheap. For my peers, the cost was roughly £9,000 for a three-year undergraduate degree plus ~£13,000 for the LPC in London: £21,000 (add an additional £9,000 if GDL is required). Regrettably, undergraduate fees are now likely around £27,000, making the total cost around £39,000 or £48,000 if a GDL is required. If you are doing the BPTC, this adds another £4,000 or so.

In the USA, undergraduate course fees are roughly $40,000 a year, multiplied by three ($120,000). In most states, hopefuls must then study for a Juris-Doctor (JD) (taking three years), usually in law, costing another $40,000 p/a. Total cost: ~$240,000.

It must still be acknowledged that £48,000 is a huge sum, and many lawyers who obtain employment at small regional firms or rely on legal aid work may struggle to pay this off. Unfortunately, government funding is unlikely to ever subsidize a profession that is widely believed to be one of the most lucrative. One can only hope that the number of funded training contracts available increases, at least cutting some of the cost. However, even this seems unlikely.

There are scholarships available for aspiring barristers from the Inns of Court, and from LPC providers for aspiring solicitors, but these would need to increase vastly to make any difference.

It gives the financially struggling aspiring solicitor little solace, but it is a lot worse in America. At least organisations such as Aspiring Solicitors are emerging to help the less fortunate, even if not financially.

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Tagged: Legal Careers

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