Future of legal education

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, August 28, 2017
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Sydney Law School [File photo]

Recently I attended an important conference organized by the Australian Academy of Law on the "Future of Australian Legal Education." While the focus was on Australian legal education, most of the themes discussed reflected challenges facing legal education in most countries.

For some, law schools should be almost exclusively focused on educating professionals for legal practice. To that end, accrediting bodies often prescribe certain subjects that the profession regard as essential knowledge, skills and value sets required in legal practice.

In Australia, to qualify as a lawyer, one must undertake 11 core subjects that focus on particular areas related to general practice, such as contracts, civil obligations, civil procedure, evidence, criminal law and procedure, property, constitutional and administrative law and legal ethics.

Surveys, however, indicate that today less than half of the students attending law school ever intend to practice law. This creates a tension within law schools between educating for legal practice and legal education generally to prepare students for a wide range of future roles, many yet to be invented.

A second challenge relates to the level of education required for entry to law school. There is a move in Australia and elsewhere to follow American model (the Juris Doctorate (JD) degree) and see law school as a post-graduate qualification following a first undergraduate degree in any field.

A third challenge relates to diversity. Unfortunately, law school enrolment in most countries is over-represented by those students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Significantly underrepresented are Indigenous peoples and other minorities.

A fourth challenge is the reality that in today’s increasingly complex and conflict-laden world, legal literacy is important for everyone. Yet, law schools have traditionally done little to advance the cause for people generally. Too often ignored are the needs of non-legal professionals who find themselves working in a compliance-driven environment, but who cannot afford to invest three years in getting a law degree.

A fifth challenge involves the character of today’s modern students. They want to be engaged. They are hungry to learn about international and comparative law developments. They have grown up in a world of computer games and extensive networking and collaboration. Thus, traditional models of lectures and tutorials need to change and new models of education emerge.

The issue of whom law schools are for also impacts the regulation of law schools, whether it should be local, national or international? If law schools today have many purposes, perhaps the linkage between schools and professional accreditation should be cut. An example is the U.K. that plans to move to a competency-based model tested by a national exam and many pathways available to qualify for the exam, only one of which will be a traditional law school preparation.

Traditionally law school curricula were largely theoretical. However, today, there is greater focus on skills (advocacy, negotiation, research, writing, interviewing, etc., as well as inherent values, for example, in the lawyer-client relationship.

Some schools are focusing on other "soft" skills such as time management, collaboration, leadership, and resiliency. As the consumers of legal education change, the content should change. Also, forces of globalization, internationalization and technology also impact the curriculum offerings.

In many countries, there is great concern about the escalating costs of legal education and spiralling student debt. This has led to calls to shorten the length of the degree, increase competition, make greater use of technology and re-examine current models in order to put pressure on schools to reduce costs.

Law schools and the legal profession are also experiencing significant technology disruption. Schools have been slow to adopt technology or to provide students with the technology skills required for legal practice.

Schools will have to take into account the reality that tomorrow’s lawyers will be able to use technology to do much more. Moreover, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) will see machines taking over many tasks traditionally undertaken by junior lawyers.

Internationalization and globalization have also had an impact on both law and legal education. International and comparative law perspectives need to have an increased presence in the law curriculum. As human activity flows increasingly across national borders, lawyers must be aware of international developments. Top China programs, such as the College of Comparative Law at China University of Political Science and Law, are leading the way in this area.

In today’s legal environment those who hire young lawyers increasingly require them to add value from day one and to have an appreciation and understanding of the business model underlying the provision of legal services, whether in public or private sector. This in turn requires law schools to think about a range of different skills such as project/contract/financial/record/data/knowledge management, marketing, social media, data analysis and more.

Law schools should also be inspiring their students to understand how to use technology and innovation to come up with new business models that enable new forms of legal service to be provided in new and affordable ways.

Eugene Clark is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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