Examining the Law Syllabus: The Core

By P. B. H. Birks; Society of Public Teachers of Law (London, England) | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE

ROGER EARIS

THE last four papers in this book were delivered on a single day devoted to legal practice and practical skills. They marked an important turning point in legal education. For the day fell during the preliminary stages of validation for the legal practice courses designed to replace the Law Society's Final Examination. It therefore had an immediate practical interest to many institutions in this area and the discussion tended to concentrate on solicitors' education. However, the themes now run right through legal education. Perhaps because skills have hitherto been neglected, or taken for granted, they are now the stuff of everyday debate. Wherever legal educators meet, it seems that learning legal skills comes to the surface. 'Law has a limited shelf life, skills are for life' was a phrase coined by Tony Holland, the President of The Law Society in 1991. Teach a student how to research, interview, negotiate, draft and the ever changing law will always be within his or her grasp. But this should not be to the detriment of the view that law is important--hard, substantive law--and that an emergent lawyer needs a reservoir of law linked to these more personal attributes and skills. Both skills and substantive law are required in a good academic education; both are required by the professions. It becomes increasingly difficult to subscribe to a simplistic view that it is the task of the Universities to teach law and the professions the skills. How can you teach law at any stage without dealing with many of the intellectual skills? How far substantive law at the academic and professional stages should be diminished to make way for pure skills teaching was, however, a matter that these papers had to address.

Some skills are essentially practical and it needs little argument to see that they require a place in professional training. The more practical topics of drafting, negotiating, interviewing and advocacy are essential to the practising lawyer. The seminar tried to address how far they were needed in a law degree. It is true that many skills exercises employ teaching techniques that have appealed to some University and Polytechnic lectures, and have excited some into the full embrace of skills teaching; others have felt content with a broad, general and rigorous academic degree taught in a more traditional mould. It has meant that law courses have now become so various in approach and teaching that I doubt if there is a common pattern that could be universally accepted.

It is this dichotomy between the teaching of substantive law and the acquisition of skills that needs to be considered; it was this impossibility to please everyone and the lack of clear objectives that the Seminar on Legal Skills was to address. Drawing together some of the best academics, teachers and practitioners it looked at the way skills could be imparted and are imparted at the Academic Stage of Training without sacrificing substantive law; it examined the shift in emphasis that has occurred in legal training of solicitors and it debated the objectivity and guidance standards that could be incorporated into a skills course. This was no course by the converted congratulating their own views; this was a seminar that examined critically and produced some new ideas and new emphasis.

It is easy enough for lawyers who know their law to condemn the learning of the rules they practise as mind numbing. Already understanding the traffic lights, they know the road junctions and the dangers. It is less easy for the student unversed in the legal rules to highlight those that are important. Hence the importance of good course design, of good teaching, of the marriage of skills with the practice of law, and the involvement of universities and polytechnics with the professions in ensuring the highest academic standards.

Skills teaching is here to stay and many gifted teachers have been incorporating skills into their teaching for years. It is a move welcomed by most and applauded by many throughout both branches of the profession in the UK. It is widely practised in the Commonwealth. Many of those who have been involved with both the academic stage of training and the professional stage are pleased to be moving along this particular road--but it is important that a balance be struck and that a sound philosophy underpins the changes. Hopefully the papers from this seminar will underpin this balanced approach.

-117-

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