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 highly commended award goes to Matthew McGhee from Magdalen College, University of Oxford. Read Matthew’s essay below:
2011 highly commended
Is the law degree fit for purpose?
Matthew McGhee (Magdalen College, University of Oxford)
The premise of the question seems simple. The answer is, however, necessarily complicated, largely as a result of the multiplicity of meanings that one might attribute to the question. To establish whether the law degree is fit for purpose one must consider what the purpose of that degree might be. To risk introducing circularity, presumably the purpose is to train undergraduates to think like a lawyer. It is at this preliminary and fundamental stage that divergences of opinion occur. Does this make the aim to teach what the law is or is it to teach why it is the way that it is? This distinction is evident from a cursory look at two of the leading law degrees; LSE publicly state that they are black letter lawyers and concentrate on the words in statutes and cases to discover what rule applies where. The Oxford degree, on the other hand, has a very different outlook and encourages the development of an intuitive sense of the principles that form the basis of English law in an almost philosophical approach.
The more one considers the question, the more it opens itself to further interpretations. One is reminded of a Russian doll; if a crack is found and pried at, the doll opens up to reveal a different doll inside, with this process being repeated. To answer the question posed, one pries at its meaning only to find that a condition precedent to the answering of that question is the answering of a question to clarify the meaning of the first question! The doll inside the question of what it means to say that a law degree trains the undergraduate to think like a lawyer is what sort of lawyer is one envisaging? An academic lawyer or a practicing lawyer? And should a distinction be drawn between the judge and the advocate (both being practicing lawyers)? It seems that the shorter and more simple sounding the question, the greater its remit through unspoken assumptions giving rise to various permutations.
However, leaving to one side the complexities of the hidden meanings lurking behind the question, one might base an answer on the common view of the law degree as being a step on the way to the law as a vocation. Whether one chooses the path of a solicitor or a barrister, there are further steps to take beyond the qualifying law degree in the form of vocational courses. This may be compared with other jurisdictions where a law degree allows the graduate to commence practice without the need for further studies, an example being the Juris Doctor (JD) in the USA, though admittedly this is a postgraduate degree. Is this a failing of the UK law degree to fulfil its purpose in the sense that it does not adequately prepare its graduates for practice, as evidenced by the requirement for further training? One rather suspects not for two reasons. First, it is not possible that one course can teach a student all that one needs to know to be a successful practicing lawyer – a criticism of the BPTC (formerly BVC) is that it purports to train individuals in certain skills that are arguably best learnt through practice. This leads to the second reason, which is that learning how to practice effectively is a continual process and, whilst not wishing to descend into clichés, the adage that ‘you learn something new every day’ seems here to be particularly apt.
An issue that one must address is that one might have two lawyers who are equally successful in practice and are in all ways identical, except that one read a traditional law degree whilst the other took the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). Does the very fact that there may be no difference between them show that the law degree is inefficient for the purpose that the common view attributes to a law degree, namely creating lawyers? This may seem to be the case if one looks exclusively at the GDL in comparison with the law degree – if one can do in one year what a law degree does in three years, with there being no difference between the two routes when it comes to practice, then it surely shows that the law degree is inefficient? However, this is only the case if one misrepresents the situation. If one is to judge efficiency by the timescale of the route, then one must take account of the fact that a precondition to the GDL is that one already holds an undergraduate degree. The simple reason for this is that whilst the GDL teaches how the law applies to a given scenario, it does not encourage the same incisive way of thinking that is required in practice in addition to a working knowledge of the law. Thus it would seem that the law degree is actually the more efficient route.
This highlights the error in the assumption that the function of a law degree is just to place its graduates one step closer to a legal career. The purpose of the law degree is not simply to manufacture lawyers. The proper purpose of a law degree is to allow its students to develop a sophistication of thought. That the law degree also fulfils the other precondition to commencing legal practice by imparting the requisite working knowledge in no way diminishes the relevance and value of the pursuit of intellectual betterment for its own sake, a purpose performed admirably by the law degree.
As a postscript to this discussion, that the natural inclination is to answer this question by asking whether the law degree adequately prepares its graduates for legal practice reflects on the national attitude – partly incited by successive governments – that one should undertake various projects and treat those projects simply as stepping stones, rather than enjoying the undertaking for its own considerable merits. This is somewhat ironic given the number of ministers in government who have done the law degree themselves, yet are evidently not in practice.