by Dr Emily Walsh, University of Portsmouth
Legal education faces a time of change. The inception of the solicitors qualifying exam and the death of the LPC will doubtless impact on curriculum design in law schools. The qualifying law degree does not yet face extinction as it provides a first step for aspiring barristers. The ever increasing cost of university education encourages students (and their parents) to focus their attention on the career enhancing potential of a degree, rather than the opportunity for personal and intellectual development afforded by Higher Education. Students will increasingly look at destination data with a particular focus on starting salaries in choosing both university and course of study. Whilst there is no requirement for university law schools to prepare students for the legal profession (beyond compliance with the requirements of the qualifying law degree, where this applies), students must be recruited and employability is an important marketing tool. The effect of these changes and the resultant pressure is that the tension between vocational and liberal legal education may well increase.
Part 1 of the SQE includes questions on Property Law and Practice, so it is likely that land law will retain its importance as one of the core elements of the law degree, regardless of the extent to which law schools adapt their curriculum to account for the changes in the solicitors’ profession. Law schools looking to improve employability and recruitment may then decide to find more time in the curriculum to allow for more emphasis on the vocational elements of the subject, perhaps including commercial landlord and tenant (a significant area of work for solicitors). As land lawyers, I’m sure, we would appreciate more time and emphasis on our specialist subject. However, as scholars we may fear the impact of an increasingly vocational emphasis on socio-legal approaches to the subject. Land law is not the most prolific subject area for socio-legal research in any event; articles on crime, dispute resolution and family law feature much more frequently in publications with a socio-legal and empirical perspectives. This does not mean that land has no potential for socio-legal study and scholarship, on the contrary land ownership and occupation is fundamental to the human experience and a rich source for research.
The question then is whether we can find time to examine socio-legal perspectives in an area of law without firm socio-legal foundations with mounting pressures to produce graduates ready for legal practice. I would argue yes we can, and indeed should. Students studying law are studying for a degree and as such should not be denied the opportunities for critical thought and debate afforded to undergraduates studying humanities and social sciences; these skills equip students for life. Whilst law schools rightly maintain close links with the legal professions, often employing a number of former practitioners and providing clinical legal opportunities, most law graduates will not become practising lawyers. Legal education must surely reflect the diversity of the students and the variation in the career paths they will follow. Even for students seeking a career as a solicitor or a barrister the process of securing a job requires them to do more than merely grasp legal doctrine. Employers want graduates who can think, and socio-legal perspectives help to foster this critical thought.
More specifically, if we want to increase the diversity of scholarship in land law we need to inspire students to consider land as an interesting area for further research. Students rarely clamour to write land law dissertations, instead often focusing on family law, human rights or crime. Early exposure to socio-legal approaches could help to foster enthusiasm and equip students with the basic methodological tools to embark on a piece of socio-legal research. Dare we even dream that, inspired by how they have learnt land law, students may even go on to author PhDs and join us as land law scholars?