Quality law graduates preferred to large numbers of ill-equipped graduates

Academics mull adding a year to Bachelor of Laws degree so as to include ethics, morals, writes Franny Rabkin.

The prestigious Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree might be set for another facelift as legal experts bemoan the quality of skills it provides to graduate lawyers.

Academics suggest an additional year at university, and subjects that focus more on ethics and morals, while law firms would like to see more emphasis on numeracy skills.

It is more important to have fewer well-equipped lawyers entering the market than larger numbers of ill-equipped graduates, says the dean of the Rhodes Law School, Jonathan Campbell.

The LLB degree is the only academic qualification required to become a lawyer. But for years the attorneys and advocates professions have complained that LLB graduates come out of university illequipped for practice.

Then the four-year undergraduate LLB degree was introduced in 1997 — an attempt to democratise access to the legal profession by making attaining the degree shorter and cheaper. It was also intensely and widely criticised.

Not only did it lower the quality of the degree, but more than 75% of the students do not finish it in four years in any event, say the critics.

But now there is an opportunity for change. Stakeholders in legal education — including the Council on Higher Education — seem to have been won over to the idea that four years at university for a law degree is simply not long enough.

Last year the South African Law Deans Association published a position paper recommending a five-year degree. The Council for Higher Education has also introduced for discussion the idea of making all undergraduate degrees one year longer.

The suggestion was based on research, including the findings that only 35% of all LLB students actually graduate within five years and that, of all those who register at tertiary level, only 55% ever graduate at all.

The idea of spending five years at university before you can get a law degree is a welcomed almost universally within the legal community, but the debate — as could be seen on Tuesday at a law teachers conference hosted by Wits University — is what a new, longer law degree should look like.

Prof Campbell puts the central question: “Should the university law school train lawyers for practice or pursue a broader, academic legal education?”

The debate, framed this way, is not uniquely South African and has been going on for years.

It is about vocational training on the one hand (how to draft a will or a set of pleadings, keep good accounts and form a company, for example) versus academic training on the other (the theoretical and moral underpinnings of the law, how to analyse critically, how to undertake research, how to understand the world more broadly and the law’s role in it).

What is particularly South African, and what sometimes makes the debate fraught, is its social and historical context: the role of the law ( and therefore lawyers) in a society that needs to be rapidly transformed, the discrimination faced by black lawyers and the differences in the education offered by historically black and historically white universities.

Before the four-year degree, there were three law academic qualifications — the LLB, available at the historically white, elite universities such as Wits, University of Cape Town (UCT), Rhodes and Stellenbosch and the BProc and BJuris degrees — available at the historically black universities including Fort Hare and University of the North, University of SA and some of the white Afrikaans universities. The LLB was the lofty, academic degree, while the other two were more practical, vocational ones.

The four-year LLB got rid of this system, but now it too seems set be reviewed, bringing legal academics back to the question once again: what is the purpose of a law degree? Is it to train attorneys and advocates for practice or has it a broader, less technical function?

While vocation versus academia are the end pillars of the debate, most views fall somewhere between the two.

Prof Campbell says a good legal education should cover both, but he tends towards a broader, less vocational approach to the LLB saying it will make for better lawyers.

“A good lawyer, particularly in the current constitutional dispensation, is so much more than one who knows well the law and how to apply it. Social justice values of equality, human rights and freedoms are pervasive in the constitution, which all lawyers have a duty to safeguard,” he says.

“Our law is values-based, and a deep understanding and inculcation of the values of social justice and ethical practice are as important as knowledge of the law.”

This might mean fewer graduates and a more expensive programme, he says. “Access to the profession might become more limited, but improved justice will result, and the latter is surely the more compelling imperative”.

Stellenbosch public law professor Geo Quinot says a choice has to be made between quality and quantity, between many lawyers and good lawyers, and that most people agree quality is more important.

Nic Swart, speaking on behalf of the profession, says there is “no desire for the university to deliver a ready-made practitioner”.

But what must be discussed is whether graduates are fit for purpose — do they understand the society they will serve? Are they able to cope with an competitive workplace and the economic realities they would face when they enter it?

The approach of Prof Campbell seems to have broader support.

The law deans association’s recommendation for a longer degree was subject to the caveat that non-law modules be introduced “to broaden the understanding of law students of the context within which the law operates."

But whether it will have traction with an executive that was (in 1997 at least) determined to make the legal profession less white and less elite remains to be seen.

Prof Quinot says fewer law graduates would not necessarily affect the diversity of law graduates because the law schools have control over admissions. So, to the extent that a five-year degree might result in fewer graduates, this would not necessarily have implications for diversity, he says. The real debate, he says, is about what makes for a good lawyer — how much practical training versus how much emphasis on academics.

While everyone agrees on the five years, the debate is in the detail: should it be five years made up of a three-year undergraduate degree plus a two year post-graduate law degree, or a five year undergraduate law degree?

Should there be different options or a flexible model?

But the dean of UCT’s law faculty, Pamela Schwikkard, says the vocation-versus-academics debate is a bit of a red-herring.

The real issue is that law students are arriving at and leaving university without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

“When you interview law firms, that’s what they are complaining about,” says Prof Schwikkard.

The problem is with school education, which then has a knock-on effect when people get to universities. Whichever way the five-year degree is structured, it must address this problem, she says. And, most importantly, law faculties, especially at the black universities, need better resources.

Caption: LEGAL CHALLENGES: A longer degree may mean fewer graduates, but better lawyers will result in an improved justice system in SA.

By Franny Rabkin

Article Source: Business Day

Source:  Business Day

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