Education education education

Education is a wonderful thing. Yes, at school you have to do fractions and you might have to go out on a wet and cold day to play hockey, but you also get to learn amazing things about the growth of volcanoes and Henry VIII’s appalling record on relationships and try your hand at writing poetry in French and making pretty pictures with iron filings. You might also, ahem, get a snog behind the bike sheds.

All of which (except maybe the last one), along with the three Rs, is important for producing well-rounded individuals with transferable skills and inquiring minds.  I can credit my education for giving me a love of history and literature, an ability to speak other languages (and be broadly understood) and sharpening my tendency to say what I think.

Having said all that, being a bit long in the tooth, my gloriously traditional education was quite rubbish at teaching me about everyday stuff, like how banks work (or not) and my legal rights and responsibilities, preferring instead to focus on life skills like making cushions (although this one may have come in handy sooner if I’d bothered to pay attention). 

Maybe this is why, despite getting to grips with my role as a citizen, I have failed quite spectacularly on the understanding-my-finances front (new accountant take note).  Fortunately for me I could get away with it: I managed to get into Cambridge (which regrettably is still something of a career pass) and there were plenty of jobs about anyway.  Today’s cohorts of new school leavers and recent graduates may not be so lucky.

Which is why it’s more important than ever to get the balance between the vocational and academic aspects of education right.  On Monday everyone’s favourite body of business leaders, the CBI, complained that schools have become ‘exam factories’ and called for radical changes to give children a broader education. 

I wouldn’t disagree with this in principle but I am naturally a bit sceptical when business tries to involve itself too heavily in education.  Before you know it, we’d end up with schools churning out media and marketing executives and little or no acknowledgement that we also need nurses, gardeners and charity workers or that sometimes learning something just for the hell of it can be a good thing.

The same must be true of the legal profession, even if there is a much closer link between those who educate wannabe lawyers and those who might eventually employ them.  The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has been reviewing this system for the last 18 months and is due to report next month.  As you can imagine, external commentators have spent most of that period disagreeing about the LETR’s remit and actions.

This has come to a head in the last few weeks, with the president of the Supreme Court warning that the LETR may end up ‘unbalanced or worse’ because it identified its purpose wrongly.  He also questioned whether there needed to be a ‘root-and-branch’ change because the present system is quite good at producing ‘many high-quality lawyers’.

I’ll confess, as I often do on this blog, that I am not an expert in legal education and training nor in the LETR specifically, but it can’t be that a system that had its last comprehensive review back in 1971 and is producing professionals for a vastly changed, and continuously changing, market can still be fit for purpose.  That is not to undermine the skills and expertise of those now in practice who came through this route, but it cannot be right to equip today’s aspiring lawyers in the same way and expect them to flourish.

I followed an interesting conversation on Twitter spurred by a post on the Legal Cheek website explaining ‘why law students’ cluelessness about the legal market could consign them to paralegal purgatory’ (their words not mine).  A number of those with expertise in this sort of thing agreed this was an issue, with schools, colleges and the profession itself presenting something of a rose-tinted view of a career in the law.

There are a number of reasons why legal educators need to get to grips with this.  Not everyone who wants to will end up as Martha Costello or Kavanagh QC, not least because while more and more students want to become barristers, the numbers of pupillages are falling (and, worrying, an Oxbridge education is becoming more important in securing one).  Equally, there are far more law graduates than there are training contracts. 

Perhaps even more importantly, the skills that have served lawyers well for the last 30 years are no longer sufficient for success, not on their own anyway.  As consumers become increasingly demanding (and they will) for services that not only provide reliable legal expertise but high levels of customer service, understanding what this means will be the difference between failure and success (it’s a wonder it isn’t already).

Not only that, new ways of delivering legal services and new entrants to the market will put mediocre lawyers and firms out of business.  Quite right too, but if today’s law students don’t want to be among their number they are going to have to develop particular expertise to enhance their legal qualifications, such as in-depth knowledge of a particular industry or language or technology skills.

That said, and excuse the hackneyed idiom, no one wants to see the baby thrown out with the bath water.  Professor Gary Slapper has made a sterling defence of the importance of retaining academic legal scholarship in legal education precisely because learning the mere practice of law is not enough to make a good lawyer. 

Law degrees, unlike medicine, do not exclusively produce lawyers.  Furthermore the law, also unlike medicine, controls almost every aspect of our lives from government and our human rights to buying houses and being employed.  It is vital that those who will ultimately use and shape it don’t just know the practicalities of criminal or contract law, but understand legal theory and the philosophical workings of the law. 

They should probably also know about the theory of general relativity and be able to recite a few sonnets, because that’s what makes education worthwhile. 

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