Professor Andrew Francis looks to a future where law schools work closely with firms in developing the next generation of lawyers
This year is an exciting one for everyone at the Manchester Law School as we celebrate 50 years since our first law students graduated.
It has provided a fantastic opportunity to bring together our staff, students, alumni and partners to reflect on our achievements and look to the future.
It also provides an opportunity to consider the place of a modern law school in the wider legal community, against a backdrop of an ever-changing professional and academic world.
A great deal has changed in legal education over the last 50 years, much of which is captured in the fascinating book History of the Society of Legal Scholars by Fiona Cownie and Ray Cocks (2009).
We have seen professional training change from centralised assessments to the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and back again. Legal scholarship has strengthened its place within universities, alongside innovations in learning and teaching.
All this has taken place within the context of wider changes within higher education (HE) including its expansion, changes to fee structures and greater regulatory scrutiny of universities than ever before.
The legal services sector has been similarly transformed over the last 50 years. The sector has expanded exponentially, although principally in the corporate sector. There is greater diversity, certainly at entry level, although challenges remain for women and minority ethnic lawyers.
Globalisation has pervaded the legal sector and technology is increasingly providing both challenges and solutions to lawyers. Another major change came with the Legal Services Act 2007, meaning law firms can now be owned and managed by non-lawyer entities.
Entry to the legal profession is characterised by competition – both for those students aspiring to enter the profession and for firms competing for talent with each other as well as other professional services firms. Much else has changed as well.
Throughout these 50 years, although law firms and law schools have often worked well together, far too frequently the sectors have allowed themselves to be characterised as operating in different spheres and with different interests.
To some degree, there was a sub-text of this sense of divergence in much of the SRA’s recent consultations on the Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination (SQE).
However, the reality is that even in the discussions about the SQE, time and time again the profession and legal education demonstrated aligned concerns and shared working.
At a time of further challenges in the HE sector, ongoing uncertainty in legal training and qualification, and wider political, public health and environmental concerns, it is more important than ever before that we work effectively and closely together. Of course, all parts of a university have a civic role.
However, for our sector we cannot lose sight of the fact that law, as a discipline, is intimately connected with the world around it.
We have to be mindful of the global, political and environmental challenges that we face, and of law’s responsibility for understanding those challenges and responding to them.
The civic role of a law school can be an incredibly rich and productive role that informs the teaching that we deliver and the research we undertake.
But equally, that teaching and research has a really important and profound impact on the wider civic environment as well. It’s about dialogue and a relationship.
Fundamentally, it’s about locating a law school within the world. Law schools across the country have the ability to powerfully connect with their local areas through their alumni now working in firms and chambers; and the support this provides through the many mentoring and partnership initiatives that are so important for the next generation of legal professionals.
Research is another key opportunity for collaboration. Legal academics are driven to demonstrate impact for their work beyond academia.
Firms have the opportunity to engage with this, with work that sits at the cutting edge of the discipline and can shape and direct research programmes for the future.
Here in Manchester we have been working hard to strengthen and actively build networks across the city. These networks are critical to the relationship that large legal education providers and legal firms can build, not just with each other but for their wider communities. I have been really encouraged by the openness of firms to working more closely with us.
Our new law degree, which launched this year, is a great example of this relationship in practice. Students will have a rigorous academic legal education – but one that reflects the changing context, with final year cross-disciplinary projects and a really strong emphasis on professionalism, ethics and a spine of units throughout the degree.
This challenges students to think critically about the external environment in which they will work. It has been informed by our dialogue with practice and will draw on practitioner expertise.
However, it is also informed by research expertise within the law school and will ensure our students are well positioned to make important contributions to the world when they graduate.
The other pressing area for collaborative working is in developing responses to the changing regulatory framework for professional qualification – post-SQE.
I have always been clear that the SQE is a regulatory minimum. Firms want a great deal more from their new graduate trainees than simply satisfying this threshold. Law schools should have a much wider set of ambitions in terms of how they think about their students and the legal education they provide.
There are many challenges facing legal services, many of which directly impact how law schools organise their legal education. We must ensure that when our students graduate, they are ready to meet these challenges thanks to the contextualised legal education that we’ve been able to develop, informed by our connections to practice.
Technology, for example, will play a major role in informing the way legal education is delivered. For us, this will not simply be a peripheral module that a small number of students might take. It will be absolutely integral to the way in which our students need to think about the relationship of law to the world.
We also need to think about the changing nature of work and the type of careers that people might want to build. Consider the traditional lawyer, who would have a demarcated area of expertise clearly distinct from accountancy, management consultancy or technology engineering.
Increasingly, these historically secure boundaries are now blurred. In the future, we may see more portfolio careers, with people moving between industries — working more as a lawyer at one point and a project manager at another, for example.
Law schools such as ours have the opportunity to develop a really flexible response to this, that builds on our position within a university with strengths across the disciplines.
For firms, there is a chance to work closely with education providers to design something that really responds to the needs of their business and to the local region. This will, of course, differ from region to region.
As we celebrate our 50-year milestone at Manchester Law School, we are looking forward to the future with a renewed sense of confidence and clarity of purpose.
It is a confidence that I believe is reflected in law schools and firms across the country as we increasingly come together to develop the next generation of legal professions – and practical solutions to the real-world challenges around us.
Professor Andrew Francis is head of Manchester Law School mmu.ac.uk