Book Review: Hilary Sommerlad, Sonia Harris-Short, Steven Vaughan and Richard Young (Eds) The futures of legal education and the legal profession

Published February 2015, Paperback, Hart Publishing Limited, Isbn: 9781849466554

Review Author: Emma Jones Lecturer in Law, Open University

The use of the word "Futures" in the title of this book could be viewed as suggesting the creation of a pluralistic and diverse range of pathways for legal education and the legal profession (p2).  Alternatively, it could even be seen as implying some form of divergence or schism between the two.  However, while this collection of essays portrays a diverse and transforming legal profession, in relation to legal education the majority of the discussion appears to paint a picture of a future inextricably bound to the legal profession with a competent legal worker as the sought-after product.

The book's stated aim is to provide a snapshot of the legal profession and legal education in England and Wales at a time when, the book's editors argue, both are witnessing 'an unprecedented transformation' (p1).  The editorial suggests that it is the legal profession which has experienced the greatest change over the last 30 years (p2).   The chapters dealing with this change cover a diverse range of issues, including the relationship between concepts of professionalism and enterprise in a society where the 'enterprise culture' has redefined the requirements of organisations (chapter 2), an analysis of the 'financialisation' of large law firms, illustrating their structural transformation (chapter 3) and a discussion of the changing nature of the family justice system and the diverse range of legal services now offered in that realm (chapter 4).  The final chapter focused on the legal profession explores changes within the judiciary wrought by neo-liberalism, bio-politics and the equality and diversity agenda (chapter 5). 

Although somewhat disparate in nature, these chapters do present a picture of the legal profession as dynamic and give a flavour of the wider changes in society (seemingly largely driven by neo-liberalism, New Public Management theory and market forces) which are shaping its transformation.  In contrast, the editors suggest that changes in legal education have been 'less revolutionary' (p13) with its curriculum remaining essentially 'doctrinal and traditional' (p14).  This is a fairly controversial statement given the breadth of previous research and discussion indicating that the doctrinal approach is now one amongst a range of legal methodologies employed within legal education (see, for example, Cownie, 2004 [1] and Siems, 2012 [2]).

It seems that, in drawing this conclusion, the editors have drawn heavily on Andrew Sanders' assessment of what does and should constitute the 'central elements' of an undergraduate law degree (chapter 6).  Sanders suggests that the doctrinal approach remains dominant within undergraduate teaching in England and Wales and argues against accepting the self-assessment of academics in this regard too unquestioningly.  In support of his view, he cites the concerns raised by The Nuffield Review, which found law graduates lacked a broader perspective on law [3]  Slightly contradicting his earlier criticism, he also supports his argument with the observation that

               Apart from explicitly socio-legal or criminological modules, most modules in all the law schools of which I have been a member or external examiner have been mildly contextual at best. (p144)

Although this is only a small part of Sanders' discussion, a sense of pessimism about the direction in which the undergraduate law degree is heading and the values and educational principles underpinning the education of the legal profession appear to pervade his whole chapter.  Whilst offering a 'vision that resists commodification and corporatisation' (p140) and prizes socio-legal analysis (p165), good citizenship (p148) and an understanding of the public interest (p165/166), he also refers to the restrictive influence of neo-liberalism and New Public Management theory on curriculum design (p145) and the potentially damaging impact of the Legal Education and Training Review ('LETR'), arguing:

               The implications for law degrees could be profound, given that this appears to put university legal education at the service of the legal profession. (p.140) 

Overall, Sanders is arguably over-pessimistic about the current focus of undergraduate law teaching.  However, his analysis of its potential future is a salutary warning for those involved in legal education, particularly in light of the LETR.

The LETR was commissioned by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, the Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards as 'a joint fundamental Review of the legal education and training requirements of individuals and entities delivering legal services'. [4]  One of its key recommendations is the introduction a competency framework of 'day one outcomes' for legal professionals which could be achieved by a variety of graduate and non-graduate routes.[5]  As one of the authors of this report, Julian Webb's chapter giving a personal evaluation of, and reflections on, the review and its implementation (chapter 6) provides an interesting contrast to Sanders' views.  Webb argues that:

               The LETR has responded by offering the means to complete the work of Ormrod and ACLEC: structurally to align the academic, vocational and continuing stages of LSET[6], without destroying                what is educationally valuable and desirable in a liberal legal education." (p.136/7).

Webb suggests that the introduction of a competency framework provides the foundation for a 'more consistent, robust and flexible system' (p114).  However, as Sanders points out, the LETR focuses largely on post-graduate, vocational training (p140).  Therefore, it is not yet clear how this will influence future provision of the undergraduate law degree.  It is promising to see Webb's references to liberal legal education as a '(somewhat) distinct discursive' space (p113), but both the LETR and Webb's chapter leave unanswered questions in relation to this issue. [7]

Discussing LSET generally, Webb suggests it is 'not unreasonable' to assume that some 'elements' of legal education will need to adapt to meet the changing needs of the legal profession (p101).  The aim appears to be to develop a dialogue and (presumably) therefore a consensus between the legal academy, the legal professions and their regulators (although Webb acknowledges that success is by no means certain (p111)). The importance of values and ethics within all stages of legal education is also emphasised (p.137).

Webb acknowledges that the LETR was 'largely shaped by the LSA [8] framework and 'ethos'', including its 'focus on education and training as a regulatory tool' (p112).   This arguably adds support to those (such as Sanders) who have raised concerns about undergraduate legal education responding by becoming increasingly vocational in nature.  However, Webb also acknowledges the impact of an 'increasingly marketised and competitive higher education system' which is 'likely to increase' various tensions, rather than encouraging consensus (p130).  The uncertainties regarding the future of the LETR's proposals is also emphasised (p137).   Therefore, it is by no means certain whether, or how, such predictions will unfold.

The next two chapters on legal education feel somewhat anti-climactic following Sanders and Webb's contributions.  In chapter 8, Alex Roy discusses the issue of regulating legal education and training.  In particular, he supports the use of a competency framework as a more flexible method of ensuring appropriate provision of legal services (p175).  An interesting theme that arises in both his and Webb's chapter is the prospect of further fragmentation of law school provision, with some choosing to retain the status quo and others finding different methods to meet the required outcomes (p178). 

In chapter 9, Tony King (Director of the Clifford Chance Academy) gives a view of legal education from the legal profession.  This chapter seems to belong towards the start of the book, or certainly somewhere within the chapters on the legal profession.  It begins by giving an outline of the various components of the legal profession.  Its final part discusses the challenges posed by competition and recruitment.  Its key contribution to debates on legal education is a call for the legal academy and the legal profession to work together (p195).  This appears well-meaning, but perhaps a simplistic, in light of the tensions highlighted in chapters 6 and 7.

The final chapter in the collection, by Richard Abel (chapter 10) provides an American perspective on legal education discussing four different topics in a comparative and interesting manner.  The first of these is the relationship between the economy and the legal profession.  In this discussion, there is a strong sense of the influence of market forces and the demand for human capital as part of its consideration of the demand for, and costs of, legal education (pp209 and 212).  This echoes some of the earlier discussion of changes both to legal education and the legal profession.   The second topic referred to is the misconduct of lawyers.  Interestingly, Abel appear sceptical about the ability of education in ethics to prevent this, arguing it is not ignorance of, but rather deliberate disregard of, such ethics which lies behind such misconduct (p214).  Instead, he argues for an overhaul of the mechanisms and system used to deal with such issues when they arise (p215).  The third and fourth topics (unequal access to justice and the preservation of the rule of law during crises) raise thought-provoking research questions, each worthy of an essay (or more) in their own right.

Overall, this book provides a clear sense of how long term shifts in society have and could impact on both the legal profession and legal education.  It also leaves the reader with a sense of the all-pervasive nature of market forces and neo-liberalism, which notably underpin many, if not all, the changes.  In relation to the legal profession, the snapshot that is presented feels balanced and illuminating.  In relation to legal education, the content is inevitably skewed somewhat by its context - the fierce debates between vocational and liberal legal education at undergraduate level are touched on, but the dominant feel is one of legal education as a regulatory tool, with the focus being very much on its relationship with the legal profession.  The relationship between the legal profession and legal education is certainly important, but such a focus should not be taken as offering a full picture of the purpose and focus of legal education in the twenty first century. [9]

In conclusion, the use of the word 'Futures' in the book's title is problematic in some senses.  The essays it contains do demonstrate the diversity of the legal services market, but in relation to legal education there is a focus on a future firmly linked to, and arguably dominated by the demands of, that market.  With the exception of Sanders' contribution, there is no sustained consideration here of the nature of legal education as education and, in that regard, it is important that readers understand that this collection is a consideration of one aspect of the futures of legal education, rather than a comprehensive analysis.  However, this does not negate the value of the book as an interesting and valuable contribution to current debates and discussions.  It simply emphasises that, in addition, further reading is needed to capture a more diverse range of future possibilities.

[1] Cownie, F. Legal Academics Culture and Identities (Oxford and Portland, Oregon, Hart Publishing, 2004) 54-58.

[2] Siems, M. M. and Mac Sithigh, D. 'Mapping Legal Research' (2012) Cambridge Law Journal, Vol. 71, No. 3, pp.651-676.

[3] Genn, H., Partington, M. and Wheeler, S. Law in the Real World: Improving Our Understanding of How Law Works Final Report and Recommendations (2006) The Nuffield Inquiry on Empirical Legal Research, (accessed 11 th January 2016) para. 87.

[4] Legal Education and Training Review (2013) Setting Standards.  The Future of Legal Services Education and Training Regulation in England and Wales, 11th January 2016) v.

[5] Legal Education and Training Review (n.5) chapter 5.

[6] Legal services education and training (p.113).

[7] For further discussion of the potential impact see Guth, J. and Ashford, C.The Legal Education and Training Review: regulating socio-legal and liberal legal education (2015) The Law Teacher, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp.5-19.

[8] Legal Services Act 2007.

[9] See, for example, Bradney, A. Conversations Choices and Chances the Liberal Law School in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford and Portland, Oregon, Hart Publishing, 2003).