Solicitors & barristers – and law students: isn’t it time they met?

By | September 16, 2010

law-1There is no reason why a law student need ever come into contact with a solicitor or barrister at any point in their academic career. As Head of Bradford University Law School, I find this an interesting conundrum.

A recent chance conversation about how involved medical practitioners were in the training of students from an early stage made me reflect on how different that is from the training of solicitors and barristers.  True, not every law student wants to go into the professions and less than half actually do, whereas the vast majority of medical students seem bound for their profession if they can stay the course.

A recent article in the Guardian suggested that the legal training system is failing some graduates. Some universities have introduced types of practical training into their degree courses and all encourage students to seek vacation opportunities with local professionals as a means of getting their names and faces known for future job applications. Many invite guest speakers from the local profession, but it does remain true that a student on a traditional law degree might never encounter a practising solicitor or barrister during their university career – much like it was forty or more years ago.

The 3-stage legal training model

The whole legal professional training regime is currently split into three stages:

1.      The academic – where the content of the law is studied.

2.      The practical – where the professional examinations , applying the learned law to actual practice-related scenarios, are taken (still classroom-based).

3.      The vocational – where the student spends a year in pupillage (to be a barrister) or two years in a training contract (to be a solicitor) actually working with experienced professionals.

There are moves away from this strict formula, but even the suggested alternatives are likely to leave most entrants to the profession in a position similar to the present.

Professional stand-off or healthy respect?

This stand-off between direct involvement of the profession in training and of the university-based trainers in practice continues after qualification.  Solicitors and barristers are as well able to look up and assess changes in the law as academics, so they do not need to engage further with those who taught them how to study law.  Academics in law schools may theorise on WHY the law has changed and the merits or otherwise of the change. Practitioners, on the other hand, will want to know what effect the changes will have on the decisions of Judge X in court next Monday morning. The theorising will not earn fee income for the practitioner and the practical aspects of Judge X’s court or the practice rules will not be of anything more than  general interest to the academic – if only because he or she will not be appearing before that or any other judge.

Of course, there are solicitors and barristers who become academics and academics who also practise, but it is seldom that a Law School has a number of members with feet squarely in both camps and seldom that a practice or chambers has a number of its members involved in the academic training of students.  Practitioners and academics have a healthy respect for each other but also a suspicion:

  • Practitioners suspect that academics know more about the law than they themselves do but have no idea how to make money out of it.
  • Academics suspect that practitioners are more involved in applying the law in order to increase their fee income and less in the detail of the law itself.

Occasionally, a relationship between practice and a university flourishes and is of benefit to both communities, but this tends to be because of the character of the people involved rather than it being a natural occurrence.

Whether the involvement of medical practitioners in training from an early point is of significant benefit or not is difficult to say.  But shouldn’t lawyers be increasingly aware of other models of training in other professions and be looking harder to exploit synergies for the good of all concerned?

About Chris Gale

Chris graduated from University College Cardiff in 1977 and qualified as a solicitor in 1980. He moved to academia in 1990 with an appointment at the Polytechnic of North London and joined Leeds Metropolitan University (Leeds Law School) in 1994, becoming head of undergraduate studies and being responsible for profiling, timetabling and staff development across the School. He joined Bradford University Law School as the inaugural Director of Legal Studies in July 2005.

Specialties: Human rights, Sport and the Law, Public Confidence in the Legal System