The future of legal education – part 2: gazing in the crystal ball

So, where do my musings, based on the previous post, lead me? Let’s start with the biggest change. I anticipate that we will see the gap between elite and local institutions widening, with a greater degree of mission and market differention than at present. By 2029, what we might think of as the modern ‘compleat university’ will I think be the preserve of a few elite institutions.Why?

First, I think it will be recognised that the demand for graduate employment has been misjudged and that the HE sector has become bloated (in crude economic terms, and, sadly those seem to be what counts), particularly in its ‘production’ of social sciences and humanities graduates. In law, whether we like it or not, changes to the market for legal services, which are already having profound affects on the shape of the legal profession, will have an impact on legal education, and not just in terms of demand for and design of vocational training. We reckon that, today, somewhere between 30-40% of law graduates in England and Wales actually enter the profession, though about 60-70% of them probably still want a career in law. One particularly important facet of this changing environment will be the impact of alternative business structures, increased legal process outsourcing and other forms of de-professionalisation on legal education and training. Even putting the recession to one side, we will, I think, see a further reduction in the number of traditionally qualified lawyers and a significant increase in paralegal work. Even if we do not regard professional education as the primary function of academic legal education, there are plenty of our students who do, and there will be a growing disjunction between their aspirations and the reality of the marketplace. That could start to have an impact on recruitment, and almost certainly will have an impact on what universities, and particularly the ‘recruiting’ as opposed to ‘selecting’ universities, need to do to address the employability of their students.

Secondly, resource, technology and sustainability factors will combine to influence how and where people study. The emphasis on work-based and workplace learning will increase, and the epistemological gaps between academic, social and technical/vocational knowledge will continue to be eroded. Traditional, full-time f2f, tuition may become increasingly outmoded and outpriced as technological enhancements improve, and constraints on mobility increase (due to fuel poverty and/or environmental protection policies), or it may simply become, once again, the preserve of an economic elite. Distance and technology-enhanced learning will become much more the norm, and learning will also become separated from processes of assessment and certification, with some universities becoming primarily assessment and certification hubs for learning that is undertaken through a distributed network of local and workplace centres.

It follows also that we may see fundamental and continuing change to the academic role. If we have fewer ‘compleat’ universities, we will probably have fewer ‘compleat’ academics. We can expect, perhaps, a greater premium on the effective delivery of learning and teaching, especially in those institutions that become more exclusively teaching-led, but also more generally as funding becomes tied more closely to teaching quality evaluations. At the same time, in most disciplines – even law – as successive research impact assessments re-define what counts as appropriate research activity, campus-based research will give way to more flexible approaches. These will increasingly utilise independent research facilities and groupings, often funded directly by the commercial and state sectors. In short, research and teaching functions will become disaggregated, work may become more casualised and competition for ‘traditional’ academic posts will be greatly increased.

For most of us, this probably looks like a pretty dystopian future, despite some glimmers of light in terms of what could be achieved, eg, in terms of widening participation and educational innovation in a more flexible environment. UK universities, including their law schools, have been, for the most part, a success story, and that is not alway an easy position from which to anticipate the need for change. Rather like Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas, I am not here to tell you what will come to pass, merely what might be, if we don’t start to anticipate the need for deep change in both organizational and sustainability terms, and provide leadership (at all levels) accordingly:

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.”


2 responses to “The future of legal education – part 2: gazing in the crystal ball

  1. OK, I see where you are going. And it’s right I suspect. Universities can’t expect to churn out the same product year on year. Diversify. And you’re right technology or what it can do will be the key.

  2. Just a footnote to Julian’s musings. This paper on functional disarticulation raises some controversial issues:

    Currently, law schools tie together five quite distinct services in one package, offered to a limited number of students. These five functions are: (1) impartation of knowledge, (2) counseling/placement, (3) credentialing (awarding grades and degrees), (4) coercion, and (5) club membership. Students do not have the opportunity to pay for just the services they want, or to buy each of the five services from different providers.

    This article proposes an “unbundled” system in which the five services presently performed by law schools would be rendered by many different kinds of organizations, each specializing in only one function or an aspect of one function.


    William K.S. Wang
    17 J. Contemp. Legal Issues 331

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