"It's the Legal Economy, stupid" - My thoughts on the LETR

John Cooper QC has been a vocal critic of the DDP's social media prosecution guidelines. Both the interim (published December 19 2012) and full and final document published June 2013. He took issue with its length and repeatedly blasted the new law as all "common sense". 


I wouldn’t totally agree with John Cooper QC but will happily employ his term, "common sense" when it comes to the Legal Education and Training Review.  The Sunday Times probably put it in better terms on Sunday June 23: 

‘Falling in line with lay opinion at long last, the Law Society has announced at last that there are too many lawyers (it’s thought that they first discovered this in the mid-1950s, but have only just finished going through the small print).’

The full report on the state of legal education was then published two days later. Comments on the state of legal education that had preceded the publication came from the Chief Executive of the Law Society, Des Hudson. His doing so managed to piss off a load of law schools leaders. (The full response by the Law Society to the Review can be read here.) 

But all Des said was that too many middle classes are trying to be lawyers. Fair comment. And it’s simple economics. The legal economy is flat in many areas, folding in some and changing everywhere. As I often put it to anyone thinking of getting into law:

"It's the legal economy, stupid."  

In response to the binary headed monster of a sketchy legal economy and  "unprecedented change" law schools need to do two things. Firstly they need to cut the supply to the marketplace. To do otherwise would be craven self interest. It’s just plain wrong to peddle false-hope among students in the full knowledge that their employment prospects are compromised. 

Secondly the law school curriculum needs to change. As I've written on this site, ‘If Big Law and small law have changed, then shouldn’t Law School?’ At the moment there's a bad fit between the legal curriculum and the actual doing of practice (legal aid reform, market liberalisation, LPO, ABS etc.) so the teaching of law must change. See, like I said, it’s common sense.

But there was something else that worried me. Des Hudson touched on it. The perception held by many of the middle classes that studying law is some sort of panacea. The belief that law is somewhat better than other degree pathways; that law it is the most prestigious and highly regarded of all the careers and professions. That law is the ticket to a position of considerable emolument. That the practitioners of the law are like Atticus Finch or whatever hackneyed lawyer stereotype you fancy.

All of the above, if it was ever true, changed a long time ago.

I proposed and discussed the idea that law school is the default career choice for many young people and families on the Huffington Post here. And then I went over to the American blog, the League of Ordinary Gentlemen and asked: ‘Why does everyone want to go to Law School?’

I was effectively vindicated by the lawyers.com study that found that nearly 2/3s of parents in America want their child to go to law school. The figures hit nearly 80% when you consider only low income households. 

But how can this be? Why would so many parents want their child to go to law school when it's open public knowledge that law schools in America are going through a bit of a crisis. The American Bar Association has even created a Task Force to tackle the problem. Though Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School spelt it out in plain English in his blog on Slate Magazine: 'The Real Problem With Law Schools: They train too many lawyers.'

To get an idea of how law students feel I did some straw man field research on Twitter and got a few interesting responses: 

The above backs would back up my theory on the middles classes' blind faith in law.


The above tweet suggests a lack of commercial awareness.


The above tweet suggests, as I advocate that people learn more from actually "doing" than "thinking". My favourite quote comes from English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

'Great achievements are accomplished in the mental fog of practical experience.'

Using the teaching of Oakeshott I actually wrote an essay on how 'Practical trumps theoretical learning'. At the very least, practical learning greatly ameliorates a theory based curriculum. We can back this up with research from High Fliers that found that students with work experience were three times more likely to land a job than those without experience. See the research here.

Interestingly, the president of the American Bar Association said that US law grads only had themselves to blame for their employment status. Lexis Nexis backed my claims that self-interest of law schools is involved in problem but said that law graduates need to take responsibility.

I'm unsure about that. But what I'm most convinced about is that there is a law narrative or law myth that exists in the middle classes. A myth that tells a compelling story; one so powerful that people are ignoring the plain facts that say don't study law. As Alex Aldridge of Legal Cheek said in the Guardian, only 1 in 5 BPTC will ever practice as a barrister. 

Now the figures for the LPC and undergraduate legal studies aren't as bad as the BPTC, but they're still unpleasant reading. 

Also, we should compare the public debate as it clearly doesn't exist in the UK as opposed to America were there is regular discussion on the law school question.

The UK debate about why so many people are drawn to study law has been deafeningly silent. As I said above, thelawyer.com found that 2/3s of parents want their kids to go to law school. It would be perfectly reasonable to suggest that figures would be similar for the UK.

The legal economy is flat and it's writhing through painful contortions. Opportunities are hard to come by and like I always say, "it's the legal economy, stupid." 

But when are we actually going to face up to the figure, answer the hard questions and make some changes.

p.s. I don't buy the platitudes that try to mitigate the negative narrative by saying that law school provides a good education and good grounding on how to approach business. Young people go to study law at undergraduate level because they have a vague notion they want to be a lawyer or a barrister. Yes, they may work out at some stage that this isn't for them. 

But right across the spectrum, from undergrad law, LPC and to BPTC, harder questions need asked and answered. We need a more national debate like in the US.

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Comment by Tom laidlaw on June 28, 2013 at 11:19

It is a bit difficult to explain what you mean in 140 characters on Twitter so I will expand what I mean by students taking responsibility for their own choices. When I was applying for training contracts etc in the mid-90s, the problems were just as marked with an over supply of law students and a major recession. What we also had working against us was 'information asymmetry'. It was really difficult to find out excatly what was going on in the industry we were thinking of joining, so we blundered on in blind hope that we would get a law job in the end. The advent of the internet, blogging, twitter etc has radically changed the information balance for law students. If they want to understand what is happening to the profession they profess to want to join then it is easy to find out from the people 'on the ground'. They can then make a more informed choice about what path they should take. if they still want to pursue a legal career, they should but with more facts at their disposal.

The other thing I was trying to explain in the 2nd twitter post that followed from the one published above was that all students should be given some sort of personality profiling to help them understand their motivations and areas for development. Hoefully, the more self-aware you are the better career choices you can make.

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