UKCLE’s student essay competitions (part of the Higher Education Academy’s Student Awards) attract interest from around the UK. We have held seven competitions to date and previous winning essays can be accessed through the UKCLE website.
Congratulations to the winners of the 2011 competition writing on "Is the law degree fit for purpose?"
Over 40 essays were submitted and entries were of a high standard, and this year's Winner was Lisa West, a student from Liverpool John Moores University. Read Lisa’s essay below:
Is the law degree fit for purpose?
Lisa West (Liverpool John Moores University)
To ask if the law degree is ‘fit for purpose’ is an ambiguous and presumptuous question. Whose purpose and which law degree is being referred to? There are qualifying degrees, exempting students going on to study the LPC and BPTC from an additional year’s study, but likewise there are non-qualifying degrees, and then criminology, criminal justice and other such degrees. All of these are law based and designed for different purposes. If you search for law in the UCAS website, for a course starting in 2011, before you are even given a list of providers you are given 35 options as to what type of law degree you would like to look at; and even if you select “law on its own as a single subject” you are given the choice of 354 different courses1.
To take a generic LL.B and determine whether it is fit for purpose is still subjective, as each student will come with a different purpose in mind. To demonstrate this I will look at myself and my four housemates, and from there determine if ‘the law degree’ meets their needs.
At this moment in time I am looking to continue to study, before teaching at degree level. For this purpose the degree has allowed me the chance to browse the many areas of law and determine which I prefer. In that sense it has fulfilled its purpose. However, studies have been targeted towards looking at a broad selection of subjects, many of which are compulsory to satisfy the qualifying law degree criteria2. To make this degree fit for the purpose of teaching it would need to adopt a broader approach in the first year of study, and to do this by offering a diverse selection of 12 credit modules. This would allow students pursuing academia to narrow down the subjects they take in the second and third years, and in some instances this could lead to a Masters degree or a PhD without the research and worry we now endure in trying to choose which direction to take. As it stands, the LL.B is fit for purpose in the sense that it will suffice for the masses, but will not always meet individual’s needs.
Taking now my first and second housemates, who wish to complete the LPC and BPTC. There has been criticism recently that the LL.B does not fully prepare students for these practical courses, but is that the aim of the undergraduate degree? I assert that the degree should be the foundation of knowledge, and that the practical courses piece together the knowledge and the application of it. Even if one is to disagree with this assertion, there has been a 20% fall in the number of students going on to complete the LPC and as such, proposals to integrate a practical element into the degree should be prevented, as they would only benefit a select group within each cohort3. Suggestions for an entirely separate degree structure for those intending to go on to practice should be dismissed as what would then happen to students who change their minds while on this new degree, or more troublingly, those not on it who would need to be4. Therefore, I submit that in providing the necessary knowledge for students to then go on to complete a practical training course, the degree is sufficient and fit for purpose. Those who believe that the undergraduate degree should equally provide a ‘dress rehearsal’ for these courses, however, will always disagree.
My third and fourth housemates took a very different view to their LL.B studies. My third housemate wishes to follow a non-legal path, and took the degree believing it harboured a wide and varied skill set which would put them in a better position than other graduates. My fourth housemate took the LL.B because they wanted to move away from home and, as The Guardian so eloquently puts it, “doss around”5. The purpose required by my third housemate, I believe, is the easiest of them all to satisfy. The research, interpretation and analytical skills gained by the study of the LL.B are outstanding, as they are embedded in the undergraduate course6. Alongside these skills comes an attention to detail which can only come with time. A student who takes the LL.B for this reason, I assert, is one which knows the value of investing in oneself and ones future. However, the purpose of my fourth housemate is one which is not easily satisfied once one passes the first year of any degree, and is a very poor reason for pursuing the law.
So it appears that the big question is actually what is the point in a LL.B? My opinion is simple; if you ask a cohort of first years in their first lecture what they want to do with their degree the majority will say they aspire to become solicitors and barristers. If you ask again in second year more will say they wish to become solicitors, and when you ask at the beginning of the third year, and after their studies of the dreaded Land Law module, most will not have a clue. The point is that it opens students’ minds to the possibilities and options available to them. The law degree helps us to build skills which will aid us no matter what direction we wish to take after we finish our undergraduate journeys. To tailor degrees to individual purposes would be pointless because we easily change our minds: the majority of students come fresh faced from college or Sixth Form with only a vague idea of where they want to be in five years. So the point? The point of a law degree is to learn about ourselves, our aspirations and futures, what we enjoy and to develop our skills. We just happen to learn the law along the way.