Last night I debated this topic: "Changes in Legal Education: How Should Future Generations of Lawyers be Educated?" at the KCLThinkTank Society. My fellow debaters were Derek Wood QC, Hilary Underwood, and Neil Rose. Mark Potter of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) was in the audience.
With exception of Neil and myself, both Hilary and Derek wanted to maintain much of what we already have. Indeed they all seemed to favour the "core subjects" in the law degree (contracts, torts, crime, etc). Even some form of post-graduate skills training and apprenticeship should stay. We all desired standards to be maintained (whatever they are).
Derek Wood and Hilary Underwood represented the bar and solicitors. Inevitably most of their remarks focussed on how legal education should serve these professions. There was for me a feeling of let's not do anything drastic because it isn't all that bad and it's served us well for a long time. This was redolent of Lord Neuberger's Upjohn lecture.
The dissonant note came from Neil Rose who explained how the new legal services market, and ABS, were changing the legal landscape, and that regardless of what lawyers might think things are changing and changing radically.
It has been a long time since we have thoroughly examined legal education. Too much of what we have has been thrown together in a hodge podge fashion. My challenge to the others was why do you assume that the core is sacrosanct? What is your evidence for this proposition? Interestingly one of the students asked how the core came about. No real answer to that one. I was reminded of an LSB seminar where John Randall admitted that the Legal Practice Course was set up without an evidence base. I'm sure the core had a similar inception. I have a feeling too many decisions have been made that way--without evidence and research.
There is nothing wrong in principle with a core, but let's justify it, theorize it, contextualize it. To have students enter university and be thrust into a law degree with little explanation of why it is like it is makes little sense, to them or us. Last night they said that.
In fact the impression I got was that the profession (and I mean that in the confined way the profession often represents itself) is rooted more in the nineteenth century rather than the twenty first. Today we face a globalized world where technology is doing remarkable things that are going to change the ways lawyers and other legal professionals work. See for example this week's New Yorker article on "deep learning" by machines. This extract describes what machines do but it isn't far from what lawyers do: it's like reasoning by analogy
A typical setup is this: a computer is confronted with a large set of data, and on its own asked to sort the elements of that data into categories, a bit like a child who is asked to sort a set of toys, with no specific instructions. The child might sort them by color, by shape, or by function, or by something else. Machine learners try to do this on a grander scale, seeing, for example, millions of handwritten digits, and making guesses about which digits looks more like one another, “clustering” them together based on similarity. Deep learning’s important innovation is to have models learn categories incrementally, attempting to nail down lower-level categories (like letters) before attempting to acquire higher-level categories (like words).
There are challenges to lawyers coming from without as well as within. I don't think the legal profession has really understood the scope of change and challenge. (Read the comments to Law Society Gazette articles online for confirmation of this.)
In my view we have a golden opportunity to investigate and evaluate the role of legal education and I hope we don't waste it. LETR has a superb research team, but they are constrained by the legal profession regulators who will of course make the final decisions. Perhaps this is my greatest concern that the legal profession might not be the best group to be making these decisions.