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Why do you need a degree to do the Graduate Diploma in Law?

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In Saturday’s The Times, Giles Coren argued that formal education is pretty much worthless — with school and university nothing more than glorified forms of child-minding that are encouraged by the establishment to avert social chaos.

Coren recalls the response of his old English teacher when he asked him, “What is school for?”

“It is to keep you off the street,” answered the teacher. “Partly for your own safety but mostly because if children between the ages of 5 and 16 were allowed to roam free, the police would be overrun, the streets would be unliveable in, society would collapse.”

As for university, Coren seems to regard “the determination of successive British governments to send every feckless dolt in the land into tertiary education, regardless of aptitude” as essentially a way of keeping unemployment figures down.

Such a view of education doesn’t really work when applied to the professions, of course, for which a spell of formal learning is usually essential. But Coren’s thoughts — which reflect a wider willingness to look critically at traditional forms of education in the internet age — may be worth considering in terms of what is asked of wannabe lawyers before they start the legal education process…

Most pertinent, with the recent trebling of undergraduate fees and associated concerns about the value of some university courses, is the requirement that candidates have a degree to gain entry to the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).

Back to Coren’s article, in which he lists his favourite columnists — A. A. Gill, Jeremy Clarkson, Charlie Brooker, Richard Littlejohn and Caitlin Moran — before noting that they have “not a degree between them”.

With the exception of Littlejohn, this lot would surely outperform the legions of mediocre students with second class degrees who shuffle through the GDL each year.

Sadly, though, bright non-graduates — who, amongst other things, tend to offer an alternative to graduate group think — currently don’t have a chance in law unless they either 1) go back to square one and do an expensive LLB or 2) become a legal executive (which takes ages and still lacks the status of being a solicitor or a barrister).

From a socio-economic diversity perspective, this block on clever people without a degree doesn’t look good, and is likely to start looking even worse as university fees most likely continue to rise. But it’s also limiting for the profession itself, several branches of which — notably the criminal Bar and mid-market corporate law firms — desperately need some new ideas.

Not that opening up the fast track entry route to non-graduates would come without risks: principally, eroding the status of being a lawyer. But do years of university really hold the same mystique as they used to? Certainly, as the plight of legal aid lawyers illustrates, those in receipt of plentiful academic qualifications are no longer entitled to charge high rates for their services. Accordingly, as the backlash against pointless higher education grows, the time feels right for the legal profession to loosen its rules and let in a few mavericks.