In comparison to our odd system of legal education – which sprawls haphazardly from the undergraduate law degree to the CILEX apprenticeship option, via the super-condensed GDL, multiple breeds of LPC and the career graveyard that is the BPTC – the US way of doing things is alluringly simple.
In America, you can only study law as a three-year postgraduate degree. At which point you sit a Bar exam. Then you’re a lawyer. The downside is the inflexibility, slow pace and high cost (over £30,000 a year in fees alone at the top US law schools)…
With America’s largest law firms hiring 40% fewer lawyers than they were five years ago – and the implicit deal that attending an elite law school gets you a top legal job eroding – a growing chorus of influential US legal figures are questioning the suitability of their system. Such is the irritation with the current model that there has even been a wave of nostalgia for the old 19th century approach where lawyers were trained through a CILEX-style apprenticeship route.
Most US lawyers, however, don’t want to do away altogether with structured academic learning; they just want to shorten it. Their major gripe is with the third year of law school, which, with its ‘Nietzsche and the Law’ modules, has long been regarded as something as a luxury. According to The New York Times’ DealBook, which last week ran a piece giving a voice to the critics of US legal education, “there is an old saying that in the first year of law school they scare you to death; in the second year, they work you to death; and in the third year, they bore you to death.”
The trouble is that law schools’ room for manoeuvre is restricted by an American Bar Association rule which requires three years of full-time study to obtain a law degree. So most top establishments are keeping their third year but modifying it, with New York University Law School, for example, having students use it to study abroad and do work placements. But a few pioneers, like Northwestern University School of Law, have got round the three-year rule by launching a two-year course that crams three years of work into two.
As the panel conducting this country’s ongoing Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) will doubtless have noted, the new Northwestern approach basically equates to a more expensive version of the GDL + LPC/BPTC, minus the flexibility of being able to take a break, or even discontinue altogether, at the mid-way point.
Back when the LETR was announced, the academic lawyer Philippe Sands QC, who spent eight years teaching law at New York University, argued that Britain should face up to the fact that its legal education system is inferior and bring in a US-style model as soon as possible. But in view of developments across the pond – which has seen lawyers as high profile as Evan Chesler, the head of America’s equivalent to Slaughter and May, Cravath Swaine & Moore, slam the “growing disconnect between what law schools are offering and what the marketplace is demanding” – a move away from what we’ve got now looks unlikely.
The GDL remains depressingly utilitarian, the LPC/BPTC a ticket (for far too many) to becoming a paralegal, and the undergraduate law degree an overly-vocational experience to submit an 18 year-old to. But when taken as a whole, our hotpotch of a system actually quite suits the current skittish market conditions. Don’t expect the LETR to tinker too much with it when delivering its final recommendations at the end of the year.