University of Oxford: Legal Educator Have No Responsibility to Train Lawyers

Law school which sees its role as the training of lawyers, except in the sense of training them to think deeply about the law, has lost its way. The law school is a place to study, to examine, to criticise and to suggest reform to, the body of norms that constitute a given legal system.

Faculty of Law University of Oxford Legal Education

Faculty of Law University of Oxford Legal Education

Faculty of Law, University of Oxford: Legal Educator Have No Responsibility to Train Lawyers

It is important to emphasise this second role of the legal educator, given the topic of this forum. To encourage a student to weigh and to evaluate the law is not ultimately a destructive, task. It is part of the role of the university law school in upholding the rule of law. The more that lawyers are, from their first days at the law school, encouraged to propose ways in which the law could be better and more defensible, the stronger the respect for law in society at large will be. As Professor Peter Birks of our Faculty has put it:

“…the law schools [must discharge] a public and constitutional function essential to a modern democracy. It is a law-making function, continually directed to the improvement of the law and to the underpinning of its authority or, perhaps the more suitable word in a modern society, its legitimacy. The law schools are the guardians of the law in the interest of the public.”

Of course, to discharge this function well, students may need to encounter material from other disciplines outside law as well. A student who has a training in economics or moral philosophy may be able to ask more penetrating questions of the law than one who does not. But even the student whose only discipline is law can work towards building a system that is as rational, as coherent and as justifiable as possible. She can point to anomalies and inconsistencies in the law. She can point to places in which it operates in a way that is arbitrary or unfair. And the legal educator ought constantly to be encouraging her in that task. Indeed, this part of the task is where the work of the legal educator and that of the student come most closely into line. In her research, the jurist herself has a responsibility to maintain the legitimacy of the legal system of which she is part by ensuring that it is a defensible as possible and, as a legal educator, this is a task that she shares with her students and in which she encourages them.

Like the first one, this second role of the legal educator is under threat in many countries. Given that most law graduates go on to practise as lawyers, it is all too easy for those in Government and in the professions to see the law school as a what we would call a ‘trade’ school, a place in which the apprentices of a particular craft hone their practical skills. In the United Kingdom, the law schools have been under increasing pressure to focus on material which the legal profession regards as useful for the day-to-day practice of law, rather than useful as a part of its critical evaluation. For example, we have been required to demonstrate that our students can use a computer and that they can complete team-work exercises. Some are keen that the law schools should teach practical skills such as legal drafting or advocacy. But I believe that these are skills which are better taught by the professions and on the job. I believe that the law school which sees its role as the training of lawyers, except in the sense of training them to think deeply about the law, has lost its way. The law school is a place to study, to examine, to criticise and to suggest reform to, the body of norms that constitute a given legal system. To affirm that this is its function is not to decry the work of practising lawyers, it is to affirm that the law school has a peculiar and an important role in the shaping of the legal system. As a senior British judge, Lord Goff of Chievely put it:

“If judge and jurist … can understand and recognise each other’s respective functions, if they can regard each other’s work with mutual respect and each other’s problems with mutual sympathy and understanding, then the future can be bright indeed.”

The legal educator does not have a responsibility to train lawyers except in the crucial sense that she must send them off to the profession with a deep understanding, not only of how the law works, but of how it might work better.

The third role of a legal educator is connected to this second one. The legal educator must be concerned for the moral development of her students. I personally believe that law is a specific type of moral reason for acting. But whatever one’s view of the nature of law, it can only be defended if it operates in a way that is just. Unless constrained by a conception of justice, the state has no right to treat individuals as having obligations in virtue of collective community decisions. In a time in which traditional moral values are being questioned in many countries, it is unfashionable to speak of legal education, or indeed any education, as moral education. But unless we are producing lawyers with a passion for justice and a desire to see the law operate in its service, I believe that we are failing in one of our most important social roles. Our students must leave the law schools with a desire to work to see justice done. The ancient Chinese book of songs pleads that all who are in authority should listen to righteous words and attend to their proper conduct and it is the task of the legal educator to lay that charge upon her students. For this reason the study of legal philosophy remains central to our curriculum at Oxford.

It is a privilege to wish the China University of Political Science and Law, not simply the congratulations of my Faculty on 50 years of achievement, but the best wishes of my Faculty for the 50 years to come. Law schools are a vital part of the maintenance of the rule of law. The legal educator who takes her role seriously, is working towards a society in which law as a whole can fulfil its function in the achievement of the common good. And that is a task that really will be important for the 50 and 500 years to come.

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