|The 12 panellists who featured in the Guardian panel discussion, chaired by Joshua Rozenberg.|
The Guardian recently hosted a roundtable discussion, chair by legal journalist Joshua Rozenberg on legal education in the US and UK. It was a bit of a compare and contrast exercise which threw up some interesting insights, including the one included in that title above, that UK law students are regarded as more work-ready than their American cousins. You can also read the Guardian article in full here, otherwise in full below [emphases are my own]:
"It is an exciting time to be an English lawyer – especially one prepared to look beyond England. The more economically globalised the world becomes, the more it needs globalised legal services, which means more career opportunities for law graduates willing to work in other countries and across jurisdictions, especially if they have an English legal background. With English common law the de facto law of business, and English the de facto language, the UK government has seized the chance to promote the UK as a commercial legal capital of the world, hoping this could be a key driver of economic growth.
Already 200 foreign law firms are operating in London and lawyers are bringing in about £3.5bn in foreign earnings.
The Rolls Building, a high-profile court complex opened in London two years ago, which is designed to attract complex business disputes from around the world, epitomises the government's vision of the future possibilities the legal profession offers.
How best to prepare fledgling lawyers for this potentially lucrative but challenging environment was the subject of a roundtable discussion last month attended by senior lawyers and legal academics and hosted by the Guardian. It was held in association with The University of Law.
The University of Law, formerly The College of Law, has centres in seven locations in the UK and has long emphasised the importance of students learning in a professional as well as academic context. A consistent theme of the roundtable was the balance between these two aspects of a legal education.
UK training versus US schooling
Participants praised the UK's legal practice course (LPC), the one-year postgraduate diploma that graduates must pass before practising as solicitors in England and Wales, for preparing students for the practical aspects of a legal career. Contributors said that city law firms in the US and Canada, where legal education is exclusively degree-based, were frustrated. One participant commented: "They are seeing very bright, capable graduates academically but they don't have the skills that allow them to start from day one running."
While new entrants to the legal profession in the US must have completed a postgraduate degree, and are usually preparing to pass the tough New York bar exams, they still tend to be less prepared than their UK counterparts, said another participant: "Typically firms in the US have to work harder earlier in people's careers to build up their skills and knowledge."
This did not stop many aspiring lawyers from all over the world, and particularly emerging countries such as China and Korea, choosing to study in the US rather than the UK, because it promised an internationally recognised qualification that would allow them to practise immediately, without the need to take a training contract.
A popular suggestion made at the roundtable was that LPC graduates should be able to call themselves "non-practising solicitors" even before achieving a training contract with a law firm. This could help them feel more able to compete with New York State Bar exam holders.
The US is not the only competitor in legal education, warned one participant. Other countries, including Germany, are now offering legal master's programmes that will appeal to the overseas market.
Some speakers expressed concerns at the idea that someone with a purely academic qualification could go straight into legal practice, contrasting this unfavourably with the English system that demands a two-year training contract before this happens.
But contributors accepted that some countries also have a problem with the idea that lawyers in England can practise without ever having done a law degree – something that could affect the future reputation of English legal education abroad unless it is properly explained, warned one speaker.
Law firms need to take this attitude into consideration, while continuing to encourage people to enter the legal profession through a variety of routes, said another, pointing out that lawyers were now a far more diverse bunch than they were 30 or 40 years ago because of the different routes into a legal career.
Career patterns had also changed, said one contributor. In the past, the aspiration of almost every lawyer was to become a partner. That was no longer the case. "All of the work may be very satisfying to those doing it but it will not be based on a very narrow, linear route of practice." In fact, said one participant, it was important that young people thinking of entering the law were not wrongly given the impression that they should expect to end up as a partner.
Not that this was necessarily the best aspiration to have anyway, it was suggested. Nowadays, the roundtable heard, not only did many young lawyers not assume they would become partners, they did not assume they would own their own houses. This makes them much more mobile than previous generations, allowing them to travel abroad, to move between law firms and sectors.
This is one argument for a broad curriculum, but while some on the panel suggested English legal training may have become too specialised, most were all for specialisation.
When the LPC was first introduced, it was as a "one size fits all" course. Now institutions such as The University of Law tailor it to different areas of law and even to individual law firms, with these firms becoming involved in course design and students able to pick the path most suited to the particular type of law they want to pursue.
For some of the big law firms, this means their cohorts of new lawyers have often trained together, know each other, and the business they will be working in, which can be a big advantage, said one roundtable participant. Another said it also makes it easier for firms to encourage students into areas of law they would not normally have considered, such as securities and derivatives. "When I was a student I wouldn't have known a derivative if it had hit me on the head," the participant said.
Courses designed in this way are able to strip out areas of learning that are likely to prove irrelevant once most students start working and concentrate on those areas that they will be able to use straight away.
And this has had a knock-on effect for student attitudes, said another participant, arguing that students no longer think: "I'm studying a lot of irrelevant stuff so it's just another year of study I can forget once it's finished." And instead think: "I'd better get into the mindset of the firm I'm going to be working in."
Many agreed that the LPC was "no longer their last days as students, it's their first days as professionals", with firms now seeing it as part of the training contract.
Certainly, it was the ability to apply legal knowledge rather than the knowledge itself that law firms attending the roundtable said most interested them. "We find students have done a lot of work and come out with a pile of paper. It's the application of what they have found that we want and that skill we are trying to develop," said one.
Firms wanted graduates with enough commercial nous to understand how the clients of City law firms actually made their money, who were able to speak the same financial language and understand the terms they used.
One law firm representative said they were actively recruiting mathematicians rather than lawyers in certain areas. "That comes much more with globalisation of legal services because we need legal knowledge underpinning things but as a lawyer you also become a commercial adviser."
Languages – particularly Russian and Chinese – were also a key requirement. One law firm representative said those with these languages on their CVs tended to go straight to the top of the pile in recruitment rounds.
While LPC exams used to be largely memory tests, students are now able to take their books in with them and the emphasis is on applying the skills they have learned in order to give the best legal advice, the roundtable heard. Institutions are also increasingly stressing the idea that lawyers will develop their skills throughout their career, that in a fast-changing increasingly globalised world education and training is something that will continue throughout a legal career.
What the roundtable accepted was that legal education and training was evolving as the demands of the world around it changed. As one participant said: "The LPC isn't a perfect thing but it is something that's innovating and developing all the time.""Roundtable report commissioned by Seven Plus and controlled by the Guardian. Discussion hosted to a brief agreed with The University of Law.
At the table were Joshua Rozenberg (Chair, journalist), Antonia Argyrou (LL.M in international legal practice student, The University of Law), Nankunda Katangaza (head of international policy, The Law Society of England and Wales), Lindsay Gerrand (learning and development manager, DLA Piper), Helen Burton (partner, Ashurst LLP), Martin Smith (head of business development (international), The University of Law), David Halliwell (director of knowledge, Pinsent Masons), Julia Clarke (global learning and development partner, Clifford Chance), David Smith (partner, Jones Day), Aster Crawshaw (partner, Addleshaw Goddard LLP), Stephen Denyer (global markets partner, Allen & Overy LLP), Chris Stoakes (director of legal learning projects, Hogan Lovells International LLP).