Comment

Complacent law schools are ripe for disruption

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New Guardian rankings expose universities’ vulnerabilities, argues expert

The Guardian University Guide published on Saturday confirms some interesting and worrying trends in the progression of law schools. Whether or not it jolts those schools at the bottom end of such trends out of their complacency and self — satisfied attitudes, is another matter.

What distinguishes this guide from the others is its focus on all the factors that are most important to students (and one assumes potential employers): how much they will benefit from the teaching, whether current students are satisfied with the course and what their chances are of getting a job. This guide also measures resources invested in the students and support provided for students requiring additional learning support.

At a time when there is a real need to prepare students better for the challenges of the future, and enhance diversity, the headline trends are not good news. Even more worrying are the appalling performances of the large provincial Russell Group universities (with notable exceptions at Leeds and York) which are the bedrock of the recruitment strategy for most of the top 100 firms. Given the focus of the guide, one would assume that the ‘new universities’, with their origins and heritage on teaching and learning would flourish. Not that long ago such institutions dominated innovative legal education but now languish in ‘no man’s land’: City (95); Manchester Met (75); Northumbria (35); Nottingham Trent (34); Oxford Brookes (69); UWE (61). South Bank are one of the few that have retained their focus on teaching and student engagement hence stand out like a beacon (11) lodged either side of LSE and Kings.

Two other factors are worth noting: in some instances, the host university considerably outperforms its law school, for example Birmingham University is ranked 16th but the law school 37th, similarly, Nottingham Trent 12th and 34th respectively. What is much more interesting is that of the top ten institutions four of them don’t have law schools. These points raise the question, are huge law schools becoming a hindrance to their university, with their failure to address structural changes in the curriculum and complete lack of awareness of how the world legal is changing? The situation can only deteriorate further as the new Office for Students (OfS) regulator gathers momentum, given its statutory duty to deliver value for money and the consumerist agenda that it has set itself.

The 2019 Legal Cheek LPC Most List

It’s not by any means all the fault of the schools. For years vice chancellors have been using law schools as ‘cash cows’ with precious little investment in return. There is too much focus on generating revenue with too little innovative thinking about the future of legal education. There are pockets of innovation (for example in legal technology and pro-bono clinics) but for the most part these developments are not integrated into the curriculum. As the dean of Bristol Law School recently commented at the Legal Cheek conference in the context of Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) 1, ‘we’ll tweak around the edges’.

It may not be their fault but is it too late for large law schools whatever their heritage? Those law schools that consistently occupy the top 12 places do so for a range of reasons. At Oxbridge, the college system plays a massive role in student satisfaction and, in common with Kings, LSE and UCL, they have not increased LLB numbers to the same extent as provincial schools. Additional revenue funding is derived from overseas student income (particularly postgraduate) which is largely unregulated. As in the case of law firms, one of the reasons why some schools perform better is down to good management and leadership.

There are two notable absentees from the league tables, that of BPP Law School and The University of Law. One can only assume that the tables are confined to public bodies but given the fact that they are both regulated by the OfS there is no logical reason why they shouldn’t be invited to share their data on these matters. They should perform very well: they both have similar teaching models to the public sector but they don’t have the distraction of having to deliver to a research agenda.

What of the future? The pressures are building up. There are signs that some of the overseas jurisdictions are likely to embrace SQE 1 as a condition for recognition for students returning from study in the UK. In recent years, Singapore has been more proactive in removing underperforming Russell Group Law Schools from their “approved list”, and it is likely that this process will continue. If they place conditions on such approval in terms of completing SQE 1 then some schools will have to do more than ‘tweak’ around the edges.

What has yet to emerge are any alternative law schools to the traditional model. For example, could we see a new model of law school — along the lines of Riverview and others who have delivered in terms of legal service platforms. It can only be a matter of time before that happens.

Mike Thomas is a pseudonym. The author is currently head of a law school.

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57 Comments

Anonymous

This isn’t new. Go back 10 years and see Guardian league tables. Guardian was always the odd one out. Guardian focus on student satisfaction and various other somewhat irrelevant factors.

Those at a poly may be more satisfied with their course because they have lower expectations. LSE famously has low student satisfaction, maybe something to do with the fact that it is full of spoilt international students.

Anonymous

^This. Having experienced both, the level of entitlement at LSE even compared to Oxbridge, Durham etc is mind-blowing.

Students expecting teachers to give do written summaries of cases (on the reading) list for them. Students thinking it is fine to sit with their phones out in class. Students expecting to be marked present because they had ‘other work’ they were busy with.

And when they don’t get their own way they take out their frustration on the NSS.

Thomas Connelly

In response to some of the commenters below, I can confirm the author of this anonymous piece is not Durham Law School’s Professor Thom Brooks.

Anonymous

Why did you allow the article to be published anonymously?

Anonymous

Actually an interesting read

Anonymous

Only to morons.

Anonymous

You should know, moron

Anonymous

No one takes Guardian (or indeed any other newspaper) university rankings seriously.

Anonymous

What are the odds “Mike Thomas” is a nobody at a nothing poly?

Anonymous

I feel sorry for the poor sods who are reading this LC article or looking at Guardian ranking and basing their university choice on that. It will be those who don’t have proper careers advisors, lack of support at their school and may be the first in their family to go to university. Imagine some misguided soul who chooses Solent above LSE because Solent is ranked higher in the Guardian.

I knew someone in my sixth form who chose a poly over Durham. Did not make any sense whatsoever and now she is struggling to find any job.

Ignore league tables, stick to the main few law faculties. Law firms and chambers are mainly recruiting from the same few universities, they don’t care where the university is placed in the Guardian league table.

Anonymous

To anyone in the process of choosing their university, ^this^ answer is correct. Look at where real practitioners tend to come from and go to the best place you can according to that metric, not the Guardian’s ludicrous (and self-proclaimed) sop to its Poly/FE readership.

Best wishes

A Real Practitioner

A Barrister

^ this.

Choose a Redbrick if you can, regardless of whether an ex-poly is higher ranked in the Guardian.

Anonymous

“What distinguishes this guide from the others is its focus on all the factors that are most important to students (and one assumes potential employers)”

I’m guessing author of this article had his law school ranked highly by the Guardian. L.O.L.

No, Guardian does not focus on factors most important to students. I am a student, let me tell you it does not. And it certainly does not focus on factors most important to potential employers. If your hypothesis was true then employers would prefer graduates of Solent above Durham and LSE.

This article is nothing but a puff piece for polys.

Anonymous

If this guy is head of a law school then why is he ‘assuming’ what is important to potential employers rather than actually finding out for sure…

Anonymous

Exactly. There are also something called statistics – look em up..

Anonymous

Thank you for this interesting article which makes some telling points.

I have set up a Law School, validated and revalidated many and have been an external for years. In short, I know what I am about. Please bear with me with regard to what follows. I will get there in the end!

So a number of points.

Have Law Schools been ‘complacent’? Far from it, Law Schools, within the context of their universities, have been very busy indeed. Unfortunately, much of their efforts have been by way of increasing student satisfaction.

Now you might think that this is a good thing. But there are three problems with it. Firstly, the fact that there is a clear correlation between student results and their ‘satisfaction.’ Invariably, when students complain about ‘the feedback’ what they actually mean are results. So, what the central administration has done has been to change the criteria (right across the board) for the awarding of degrees. This means more marks awarded for research (as edited and marked by a tutor), the discounting of poor marks for failures along the way, a third year with all electives and a general emphasis on ‘exit velocity.’ This will impact on all subjects, including law.

Secondly, the Law Schools themselves have boxed clever with the ‘difficult’ modules (ie Land Law and Equity and Trusts). They have moved them to the first year (where they will not be computed as part of the final result) and, classically, they have removed the exam and replaced it with a ‘presentation.’ This is rather like having to exam somebody on the works of Shakespeare and only assessing them on how well they know Act 1, scene 1 of Macbeth. You can fail, but that basically requires you not turning up. I first heard of this ruse being used to get around the Law Society and Bar Council rules on examined subjects by Southampton Solent about ten years ago.

Two universities I know, under the new dispensation, are making Equity and Trusts a third year elective (and so it will whither on the vine); another has abolished need for an examination in Public Law. This process will only continue.

Thirdly, the Law Society and Bar Council (JASB) have let this slide take place before their very eyes. Only now they say that, because of the lack of standardisation in Law Schools, they are going to introduce the new Super Exam. The truth is, the Universities and the Law Schools within them, were only capable of playing ‘fast and loose’ with the rules because the JASB were happy to let them do so and did not lift a finger to stop them.

The effect of all this? Well, I was an external last year at a Law School were one-third of the final year were awarded Firsts. As Lewis Carroll wrote many years ago: “When everybody wins prizes, nobody wins prizes.”

But that begs another question: Why are universities so pleased to ‘satisfy’ students by means of good results? The answer is, because they are letting them down in every other way.

The author is spot on in saying that Law Schools have been the ‘cash cow’ for universities for many years now. When other departments let you down, you just lower the admission requirements for Law. The trouble is, you then have a problem with retention and that knocks on to a problem with finance. Once that happens, the administration gets most unhappy.

So the poor retention is ascribed to ‘bad teaching’ rather than to the admissions policy. ‘Bad teaching’ tends to be teaching that is ‘inappropriate to the level.’ However, due to the fact that the level is getting lower and lower, the teaching (and, in turn, assessments) has to follow that curve.

One problem here is that the older members of staff witness this process. They see the decline happening before their very eyes and very rapidly. The wise stay silent and carry out orders which they increasingly despair at obeying. The aim is increasingly at making the lowest common denominator happy (and turning up!). Meanwhile the good, keen and able students simply get frustrated. A point not missed by their caring and able lecturers.

Yet, even if the old brigade do stay silent, it was avail them little. For unless they are useless enough to find themselves ‘posted’ to some administrative position, their days are numbered. They are numbered simply because of their expense. For it is far easier to employ young and totally inexperienced lecturers (and work them into the ground) that to pay for knowledge and experience. One should also note the stress and absentee levels and suicides among younger members of the teaching staff. It is quite horrendous and the universities are quite indifferent to it.

I was at a Law Examination Board recently and only one member of staff was over the age of 30. Quite a few of those who should have been at the board were ‘ill with stress,’ and, I discovered on investigation, young members of staff.

Now, of course, you need you lecturers coming though. Yet the balance is crucial. Without it, students get short shrift, no matter how glowing and glorious their marks might be.

Conclusion: Law Schools are in one hell of a mess. Yet I would argue, that most of it is not their fault. They are not complacent, they have simply become the playthings of the administration and ignored by their regulatory body until it is too late.

Anonymous

What a superb contribution. Thank you for taking the time to make that contribution. It should be published in the Guardian instead of their silly league table.

Anonymous

@Anon, 11:28 – thank you for this. I can’t say too much about my own circumstances beyond the fact that I also work at a law school (and am towards the more junior end), but it is perversely reassuring that the issues I see in my workplace are present in other institutions.

Law School academic

Although I think the league tables are nonsense and very unhelpful, nevertheless, your diagnosis of the state that Law Schools have got into is spot on. There’s definitely complacency and a lack of innovation. The SQE should have led to lots of discussions about how to reshape the curriculum free from the shackles of the QLD. The fact that this hasn’t happened very much says it all. University administrators also don’t seem to understand Law Schools and only really value the money they generate.

Anonymous

One of the best contributions I have read in response to any LC article. Your observations resonate with me on many reflect my own, very recent, experiences. It is a thoroughly disheartening state of affairs.

Anonymous

The law school tutor whispered into my ear “só quer vrau, só quer vrau, só quer vrau vrau vrau”. I was confused but looked it up. I liked what I found.

Anonymous

You are so naughty!

Anonymous

Talk about setting your own ground rules and proceedings by assumption:

“What distinguishes this guide from the others is its focus on all the factors that are most important to students (and one assumes potential employers): how much they will benefit from the teaching, whether current students are satisfied with the course and what their chances are of getting a job.”

What utter, utter tosh. Of the three factors identified, the latter two will be of interest solely to students and totally irrelevant to any employer. The first one will only become relevant if employers as a whole find their recruits unsatisfactory, and would probably be one of a basket of factors they would look at.

The author of this silly article is clearly at a low status institution that has got a decent result from this equally silly league table, which has nothing to do with objective academic excellence or subjective market perception.

Anonymous

What factors are important to employers? OK, as a prospective employer, here is the first question I ask “Did they win prizes at Oxbridge or come top of their year in one of the top half of the Russell Group?”. If the answer is “No”, my second question would be “Why are you wasting my time with this CV?”

Anonymous

This article is a disgrace. The Guardian tables are a disgrace.

Young people are being misled in to buying completely worthless degrees by middle class people whose own children will be told the truth.

It is wholly unacceptable for LC to peddle this nonsense.

Anonymous

Agree – it is highly irresponsible of LC to publish this article without any counter view put forward.

This article should also make clear that the author of the article has a clear vested interest and is from one of the non-traditional universities. Anonymising this article only makes it even more irresponsible.

There is great potential for those who don’t have anyone to advise them to be misled by this article into thinking league tables matter or that polytechnics are considered equal (or better) than traditional universities. The job market makes clear which university graduates are sought after – just look at the Bar and the leading city firms.

Anonymous

Absolutely right. I expect the poly that “mike” works for has blow its marketing budget for 2019 (probably £500) on getting Alex to run this advertorial.

I expect LC will delete this comment overnight.

Guardian Sceptic

From the article: “What distinguishes this guide from the others is its focus on all the factors that are most important to students (and one assumes potential employers).”

My thoughts:

Why would employers care about a league table where 10-15% of the total score is determined by ’employability’? Surely the employer should have far better internal data on how graduates from Uni X or Y have performed at their firm or chambers?

Why would employers care about a league table where 10-15% of the total score consists of the average entry tariff of a candidate, when they have the candidate’s sixth form or equivalent grades on the table before them?

Why would employers care about student satisfaction when there are multiple possible explanations as to why students are happy? (it could be that they are being taught ‘relevant legal skills’, or that they’re assessed in a more lenient manner and therefore getting easy grades, or that the teaching is traditional and yet top pf its class, or any combination of the three)

Why would employers care about student-to-faculty ratios or funding per department (The Sunday Times) when these are prone to manipulation and law is a cost-effective course to teach? It’s not like law students at Manchester are benefitting from world-class labs or in the way that Physics students are.

I note of course that the main reason as to why the crap Scottish institutions are near the top is the change to both the UCAS tariff and A-levels, which has resulted in English students often enrolling with just 3 A-levels (and no fourth AS to boost the score), while the Scottish system has remained unchanged and in fact saw a slight boost to the tariff value of Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers. But this doesn’t make the Scottish institutions more selective.

And I note finally that league tables such as these are usually contradicted by data on graduate salaries and presence within the sector.

Conclusion: The Guardian *is* worthy of attention, but the sort of attention that a cancerous and misleading mess (such as the anti-vaxxer movement). People need to check it out, recognise its flaws, and move on.

Working class and confused

I am someone who has no friends or family in the legal sector who can guide me, but I would like to pursue a career as a solicitor on the south coast of England, so which institutions are recommended by Legal Cheek followers?

P. S The poster above who stated that we have no real career guidance is not incorrect if based on my own experience; we were even told that it is pointless learning grammar as we will never use it! Working class and confused indeed.

Anonymous

Look at where real practitioner come from and go to the best place you can get to based on that. At all costs ignore people with vested interests in the HE sector.

Still Anonymous

Hi ‘Working Class and confused.’ I wrote the 11.28 piece above and did not address this issue (which may lead to your continued confusion. Something that I would not want.) I think the reply from Anon. 11.11pm (above) is good and sound advice.

Because you are no doubt busy, I will keep it short. The following advice is based on my having taught and having been an external examiner at some of the big Law Schools in Leeds, Manchester and Leicester. My children go to Russell Group Universities. I have also had students leave to go to BPP and the University of Law. My comments are based on my experiences from 1991 up until the present day.

Re: BPP & University of Law. As a correspondent rightly puts below: More like test centres than universities. They are cramming schools, nothing more, nothing less. I had one student who went to do the LPC/LL.M. at the University of Law. He kept e-mailing back to me and asking for help with his dissertation. I said that this put me in a rather awkward position as my advice might contradict that of his tutor. He told me that this was unlikely. His tutor told him to “go away and not bother him until it was finished.”

Sadly, under the new dispensation, such “Sod Off Teaching” (SOT) establishments will flourish and spring up all over the place, starting in the big cities. Despite that: Avoid.

The rest of the sector:
The former Polytechnics in the big cities (London, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds) have simply become (Law) Meat Processing factories. The Russell Group and aspiring Russell Group universities have centred on research and regard the students as an ever increasing irritation.

So, in simple terms:
Former FE/Poly/Plate glass: Efficient but poor.
Russell Group and aspiring Russell Group: inefficient but good.

The reference to poor/good refers to their standards.

So my advice: If I were recruiting for a firm or chambers, I would only be bothering with candidates from five or six Russell Group Universities in England and Wales. Why? Because these institutions are ‘selectors’ rather than ‘recruiters’ (so ignore ‘unconditional Birmingham’ in this!). They get good students in at the front door so standards continue to be good/high. These institutions tend, on the whole, to have fixed numbers each year. But do keep an eye on this because it can change. In addition, there is no race to change the system to produce higher classifications (ie no devaluation in the ‘currency’ through chicanery). However, as somebody pointed out above with regard to Warwick, they continue to be staggeringly inept. Something that you might just have to put up with (sadly!)

Ideally, you would go to the best Law School in England and Wales, namely, Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Or any Cambridge College for that matter. Why? Cambridge is the only institution in the country with 1 to 1 tuition. Secondly, and possibly somewhat surprisingly given its emphasis on research, in terms of teaching (lectures etc) it is remarkably efficient. Good students in: Great students out.

One last thing: Yes, this article does smell of Thom Brooks. I have tangled with him before. That does not mean to say everything in the article should be discounted. But what I would say is that anybody who took a Guardian poll on anything seriously would probably also think that Anne Widdecombe and Cliff Richard would be the best people to give advice on sexual health and well-being.

Thom Brooks

This was not written by me.

Anonymous again again

OK. I just said that it “smelt” of you, not that it WAS you.

But thank you for the clarification anyway. Clearly your reputation proceeds you.

Thom Brooks

My pleasure. Must try using a different cologne…! Great posts above.

Anonymous

Adding to the excellent 8.11am reply – this study from chambers carries out actual data analysis on the question. If you can choose one of these universities you are in a good place to get a TC.

https://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/where-to-start/newsletter/law-firms-preferred-universities

Anonymous

uhm

Anonymous

I go Warwick Law school, and that place is just dreadful at times. There is no teaching. It is literally a case of everyman for himself. I think us students get so frustrated because of the way we are marked in relation to how little support we get. There are some real smart people there, but also some very inconsiderate ones. And the fuck up with the exam time table this year!!! That was so amateurish it’s beyond a joke. As for the Guardian league tables they have some merit in terms of satisfaction but I would not advise any student to pick somewhere like Southampton Solent over Warwick ( even considering how shoddy Warwick can be sometimes). And as for the authors comment on BPP or university of law , he is speaking utter bullshit. My mate went to one of those places for his LLB. In his words its a sham; more like a test centre than a school.

Anonymous

The quality of this entry really proves the point made by the academic above about falling standards.

Anonymous

The most frustrating thing about this article: “Mike Thomas is a pseudonym. The author is currently head of a law school.“

He is clearly not just head of “a law
school” he is head of a new law school. This article isn’t an impartial piece by a law school dean musing about different types of universities. This is someone with a clear vested interest.

The only people who lose out here are vulnerable pupils who don’t have any other source for advice. They could fall for the BS contained in this article.

LC should have balanced this article with a different view, or make clear that this is an article by someone with a vested interest. This advert for polytechnics should not have been an anonymous piece.

Anonymous

I have a strong suspicion that the “Mike Thomas” is actually Thom Brooks, head of Durham Law School. He has in the past collaborated with LC (regarding his views/delusions of “Doxbridge”), he uses Twitter and LinkedIn to publish a number of implausible hot takes (such as imputing a link between bombing in Syria and Tory local election strategy). Durham didn’t do too badly in this ranking and I think he’s taken the opportunity to fire a volley at other law schools.

This is my own opinion, not at all proven but based on suspicion. I am a law student at Durham and this strikes me as his kind of post, but I have no way of knowing that of course.

Lastly he did retweet this article rather quickly, though it’s not surprising that he might comment on it given its relevance to his position.

Food for thought.

Thom Brooks

Hi anonymous Durham Law School student:

1. I am not Mike Thomas.
2. I don’t fire “a volley” at other law schools. In fact, I’m Vice-President-Elect of the Society of Legal Scholars representing legal academics across the UK and Ireland.
3. I disagree with the above post. For example, from what I’ve seen, the SQE is a reform that will not raise standards, improve access or lower costs. While I agree law schools should not be complacent, I strongly disagree that not being complacent should mean adapting programmes to an as yet not approved by LSB SQE.

Anonymous

Hi Thom,

Why did you reply to this comment in such good time if you did not author this article? Seems confusing that you might revisit this article having already passed on it comment yesterday

Thom Brooks

Simple. I follow Legal Cheek on Twitter to get latest news.

Anyone who thinks I support the SQE doesn’t know what I think. The content is an easy clue this couldn’t be me.

Even more odd to attribute to me a piece I criticised (see: https://twitter.com/thom_brooks/status/1138481475635036162)

Anonymous

Your attention to the comments section of this article has me rather unconvinced I’m afraid

Anonymous

Legal Cheek has confirmed it’s not Brooks. When in a hole…

Anonymous

“I follow LC on Twitter and this explains why I am updated on the comments under this article” curious

I didn’t see the SQE points as a major feature of this article though I note you disagree with it

Anonymous

It is cowardly to anonymously write an article/advert slagging off traditional universities and promoting polytechnics and private equity “law schools.” Either put your name to it or back away..

Anonymous

I don’t see how the piece is beating the drum for former Poly’s given this extract:
“Given the focus of the guide, one would assume that the ‘new universities’, with their origins and heritage on teaching and learning would flourish. Not that long ago such institutions dominated innovative legal education but now languish in ‘no man’s land’: City (95); Manchester Met (75); Northumbria (35); Nottingham Trent (34); Oxford Brookes (69); UWE (61).”

Anonymous

Quite unfair to place Northumbria in that grouping I’d have thought

Anonymous

Brunel law school used to be ranked 40 now its 85. It is a really bad place to do a law degree in London and the whole country hardly competitive and those that get TCs are affluent, international and deep pocketed. FU Brunel law school!

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