Friday, 31 January 2014

Going home: Coleman on legal education

Ron Coleman, of Likelihood of Confusion fame, is one of the most perceptive legal writers (and probably the most perceptive legal blogger) I know, although when he gets onto politics I find my hackles rising ... well, it would if I were the sort of animal that had hackles in the first place, and if I were a dog or a cat I wouldn't know much about politics, or be able to read what Ron writes on the subject. Oh dear, this seems to be getting complicated. Let's see if I can get back to the point.

Although it seems to be a post from a couple of years ago, leading eventually to a 19-year-old article, 'Go Home ...' is horribly relevant today. Back in '95 when Ron wrote the original article I was teaching would-be (or as people might say now, and perhaps would have said even then, 'wannabe') solicitors who were attracted by the notion that it was a 'clean and pleasant trade' (follow his links and allow Ron to educate you about that phrase, if, like mine, your upbringing didn't already make it familiar). And I was wondering why on earth many of them had ever thought they might stand a chance.

I found my way easily - too easily - into the legal trade. At the time, I thought it was a profession, and perhaps it was, until about 1984 when advertising restrictions were lifted. After that it quickly turned into a business, which at first seemed progressive and exciting, but perhaps the deficiencies of my route into the law were brought into sharp relief by that change. Although my father couldn't teach me the clean and pleasant trade, he could arrange for his best friend to do it, and in due course, after three years at university during which I learnt a great deal about politics, photography, journalism and real ale but very little about law, followed by a very miserable six months at the College of Law studying the new wave music that was sweeping the country at the time, followed inevitably by another six months cramming to resit the Law Society Qualifying Examination, Part II (an examination of such stunning mindlessness that has surely never been surpassed, although from what I hear the Multistate Bar Exam might run it close), I became articled to him. If you lost track of that sentence, as I did, the 'him' to whom I was articled was my father's best friend, senior partner in the equal-largest firm in Teesside, which in those days meant six partners: there were three other behemoths with the same number of partners in the area.

I realise now that my articles were a further period during which I learnt no law (but did learn even more about politics). It wasn't a great start to a career in a learned profession, but once I'd qualified I did begin to learn some law, not only on the job but also by pursuing a formal part-time course of study which led first to being awarded a Masters degree in business law, then in due course to a doctorate, and finally to a (still part-time) position at the institution that had finally given me some legal education, teaching those would-be solicitors on the new Legal Practice Course, the successor to the Law Society Finals which had replaced the unlamented Part IIs. By this time - the mid-nineties - it was firmly in the business of law student farming, in Ron's apt phrase. The parallel with the fermiers who played such an important part in causing the French Revolution is striking.

Between the late seventies and the mid nineties, legal education shifted from being a system that one could negotiate with little effort, coming out with a 'gentleman's degree' and scant knowledge of the law and moving comfortably into a clean and pleasant profession, to one which demanded hard work, much learning, and considerable expense, the end of which was admission into a far-from-clean and definitely unpleasant trade. But there remained several hurdles, even for those who had passed the LPC (and the fermiers certainly saw no advantage to failing any of their students). First, the aspiring solicitor needed a training contract.

A large number of students only embarked on the LPC after securing an offer of a training contract. Often they would be sponsored by the firm with which they would complete that final stage of their training. But many didn't, and for years after they moved on I was still writing references for students who needed to persuade a solicitor to take them on. One of them tragically succumbed to breast cancer shortly after qualifying, having secured a training contract several years after passing her exams. And to this day there is still a colossal mismatch between the production of aspiring solicitors and the capacity of the profession to absorb them. A friend who had completed her LPC a few years ago searched for a long time for a training contract, finally accepting the only one offered which was quite unsuitable and made no use of her impressive qualifications and experience; now having qualified she faces a difficult search for a job.

Ron - if I may be permitted to return to the point of this rambling discourse - remarks at some length on the vicissitudes of applying for jobs. A 'gentleman's degree' is an immediate disqualification, no matter that it be supplemented with a doctorate: the way applications are filtered takes no notice of what follows one's first degree unless it is at least an upper second. I like his comment about the 20 'top ten' law schools ... A similar dilution of the quality of legal education has taken place here, and his comments about how attractive a law school is to a fermier is as relevant in the UK as in the US. The best are excellent, but the bulk of them offer less value - but, however good the legal education they offer, none of them can offer entry into a clean and pleasant trade. Or any trade, for that matter.

Enough, already. I will feel inclined to return to this topic another time. This is a good point at which to stop, for now.

1 comment:

Ron Coleman said...

Your hackles need adjustment, but thanks for the kind and reinforcing words!


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