Examining the Law Syllabus: The Core

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

18. Skills Teaching in Legal Education-the Legal Practice Course and Beyond
PHILIP A. JONESIN September 1993 the Law Society's Legal Practice Course will come into effect. In 1994 it will be followed by the Professional Skills Course and at the same time standards will come into effect which define the kind of skills that ought to be developed during the Training Contract. This completes a process of revision of professional legal training begun by the Bar which introduced its own skills based professional training course ( Law Society 1992, Sherr 1992).The introduction of the Legal Practice course presents clear opportunities for those prepared to take them; an opportunity to seek a closer partnership between the academic and the professional, and an opportunity for both the College of Law and the University sector to develop new forms of professional education. But it also presents threats: the emergence of a skills-based professional stage could require a greater focus on the acquisition of knowledge at the academic stage, it could lead to an expansion of the 'core', and it could lead to an intrusion of professional and instrumental values into an already threatened environment.This paper is in three parts. Part one and two consider the theoretical infrastructure that underpins Legal Practice Courses throughout the commonwealth. The Legal Practice Courses do not provide a simplistic focus on techniques and procedures, nor do they operate with a simplistic gloss on human behaviour. Both curriculum and pedagogy build upon a sound foundation of research into professional practice and professional education. Part one considers the different curriculum components, part two looks at some of the teaching and learning methods that have been introduced. In part three there is a consideration of the academic stage. This should not provide direct tuition in lawyer's skills, it should retain it's focus on personal and intellectual development and it should seek to develop a 'deep; understanding of law and practice. But, it is argued, this traditional aim might be better realized through a degree that provided a closer integration of theory, practice and skill. Such an integration is provided through programmes that integrate substantive law, theoretical exploration and real or simulated practice, it is this possibility that is present in the new exempting' degree; that intertwines the law degree and the Legal Practice Course.
I. The curriculum defined in the Legal Practice Courses
All the Legal Practice courses share an orientation to what lawyers 'do' but each has relatively distinct conceptions of what it is that lawyers do. These conceptions are articulated through the specification of curriculum elements in the form of fairly precise learning objectives. Four different curriculum elements can be distinguished:
(i) transactions
(ii) lawyer's skills
(iii) professional practice skills, and
(iv) problem solving

(i) Transactions

The focus here is at the lowest level of abstraction on the most tangible aspects of a lawyers performance, the capacity to perform certain tasks in the context of a transaction of current matter'. Examples from the Law Society standards would include 'investigating title', 'drafting a contract', 'preparing the oath for executors', 'making or contesting a bail application', the preparation and conduct of 'applications to the master or district judge'. Such processes may require skilled behaviour but they are perceived as activities, procedures or tasks. They represent a level of activity that is intrinsic to lawyering behaviour and are defined in terms that most lawyers would recognize.

A focus on transactions is a feature of the courses developed in Australia which define the tasks involved in each transaction in some detail. The Law Society standards similarly define the core subject areas in terms of tasks and transactions. They do not, though, adopt a full-blooded transaction approach but define the transactional context with some care. many of the standards require the students to 'determine', 'decide'. 'identify the steps', or 'investigate'. These clearly expect the student to be able to carry out the steps that make up the transaction. At other times, though, the phrasing is permissive. The student may be required to 'demonstrate an understanding' or 'appreriate the need' to 'advise', 'investigate' etc. The wording is critical. The course is to be informed by a 'transactional' approach. It is not to be dominated by it.

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