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Various Kinds of Law Degrees

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Most people assume that if you study a law degree then you will inevitably go on to practice law as a solicitor or as an advocate or barrister. In other words, law is seen as a vocational degree, in the business of training students for a professional legal career. In fact, many of those studying a law degree have no intention of going on to practice, and probably most law teachers do not see it as their primary function to turn out students for the legal profession. Also, there is a wide range of law degrees, and many of them are not what are described as "qualifying law degrees", i.e. they are not recognized by the legal professional bodies as equipping graduates for legal practice. Instead, such law degrees might admirably equip graduates for a whole range of careers in commerce, business, industry, management, administration, legal publishing or academia.

Recent reviews of legal education in the United Kingdom have affirmed the need for a law degree to provide an independent and general education in the discipline of law and not necessarily be tied to any specific vocation. It is common today to talk of graduates as being able to demonstrate "transferable skills", and law graduates are no different. The types of skills which have been approved as skills that the public would expect a lawyer to have are diverse. According to the First Report on Legal Education and Training from the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education and Conduct (ACLEC) in April 1996, these skills include:

  1. The construction of logical argument

  2. The capacity for abstract manipulation of complex ideas

  3. The systematic management of complex factual information

  4. The ready identification of critical areas of dispute and discussion

  5. The use of language at all times with scrupulous care and integrity

  6. The related ability to write clear, consistent and compelling prose

  7. Oral communication

  8. Competence in retrieving, assessing and using legal texts and information including information technology skills

  9. The ability to apply conceptual analysis and to handle rules in a variety of contexts

  10. Intelligent, critical reading of texts

  11. Mastery of a specified range of basic numeracy skills
Listing these skills should give you a sense of the type of education you are likely to receive in law school. Although ACLEC was principally concerned with the position in England and Wales, the skills listed above are equally endorsed by the Scottish professional and educational bodies as those which law students should acquire during their degree. You will be taught and assessed in a teaching and learning environment that encourages you to use language with care and to be able to problem-solve and to analyze large amounts of material. You can also see that these skills are not ones that are exclusive to the practice of law. They are of use in all employment contexts.

This article considers the range of degrees available to the potential law undergraduate. Both the qualifying and non-qualifying law degrees are described. The choice of subjects for the qualifying degree is prescribed by the Law Society of the country in which you wish to qualify. For those who wish to pursue a "non-qualifying degree" (i.e. one which consist of law subjects other than those prescribed for eligibility for the next stage of professional training) there is an almost infinite variety of choice, for most universities permit you to study law and virtually any other subject, constrained only by internal regulations concerning timetabling and the specialisms of the teaching staff.

The qualifying degree will give you passes in all the subjects required by the professional bodies to take you to the next stage of a legal career as a practicing solicitor, advocate or barrister. In Scotland there are five universities that offer the qualifying law degree. The grades required for entry vary. Each institution will have a set of minimum published grades, but occasionally an institution may make an offer to students with less than the published minimum. The subjects that you need to study differ depending on whether you intend to practice as a solicitor or as an advocate. While you do not have to make any final decisions about this at the start of your degree, and while many people qualify as a solicitor first, practice for some years and then go to the Bar, this might be a convenient point to say a little more about the differences between the two types of lawyering.

First though, a note about the terms "advocate" and "barrister": Scotland alone uses the term "advocate" to describe the lawyer who specializes in pleading and advocacy in the courts. Virtually all other jurisdictions that follow the Western tradition use the term "barrister". Unless the text demands that I make it clear which is meant, it can be assumed that the two terms are used interchangeably. Solicitors tend to work in partnerships, though sole practitioners operating as a one-partner firm are actually in Scotland the most common type of practice unit. Currently, around 44 per cent of all Scottish law firms consist of one partner. There may be other solicitors working in the firm, as associates or assistants, but in terms of who is responsible for the management and liabilities of the firm, it is only the partners who perform that role. Solicitors' work tends to be office based. They have one or more sets of premises, and clients visit solicitors at these offices to give instructions and take advice. In contrast, advocates are not based in offices though they may work out of premises known as chambers, which are usually located close to courts. They do not take their instructions directly from clients, but from solicitors acting on behalf of clients. Advocates find that their day is spent mostly in the courts, though some advocates specialize in giving opinion work, that is to say they will give specialist opinions or advice to solicitors on particularly difficult points of law. Solicitors also appear in court but they do not have rights of audience in the higher courts-those rights are reserved to advocates.

There has been much debate in recent years about the respective roles of solicitors and advocates. Some people argue that the distinction made between the two types of lawyer is a false one and that there should be a fusion of the professions permitting all solicitors the right to practice in the courts if they so wish. While there has been great resistance to that by advocates, who maintain that a specialist body of court pleaders is better for clients and the development of the law, there have been some movements towards a fusion in recent years. For example in 1993 the first solicitor-advocates were appointed. These are solicitors who have sat special exams and gained the right of audience in the higher courts in Scotland, namely the Court of Session (which hears civil cases) and the High Court (which hears criminal cases). There was much speculation that the advent of solicitor-advocates would spell the death knell of the separate branches of the profession. However, since 1993 only 61 solicitor-advocates have been appointed with criminal rights of audience and 45 with civil rights of audience, and of these only two have both criminal and civil rights. These numbers represent just over one per cent of practising solicitors which suggests that there is not exactly a major drive by solicitors or advocates to achieve this dual qualification. Further information about the process of qualifying as a solicitor-advocate can be obtained from the Law Society of Scotland.

The subjects that make up the qualifying degree-the LL.B.-are prescribed by the professional bodies in the United Kingdom. These professional bodies are the Law Society of Scotland which governs Scotland; the Law Society which governs England and Wales, and the Law Society of Northern Ireland which governs Northern Ireland. Each of the three jurisdictions within the United Kingdom- Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England and Wales- prescribe a set of core subjects which they require those intending to enter the profession to study. England and Wales have the smallest core comprising only seven subjects, while Scotland has the largest, comprising 10 subjects. Their specific requirements do change from time to time.

When you embark on a law degree you will be asked to select your subjects. You will be given advice on how to select subjects by a member of the university lecturing staff who will be appointed to you as an adviser of studies. If you have a clear sense of the direction you wish your career to take you should be sure to discuss that with your adviser, as it is only by doing so that he or she will be able to give you the best advice as to the subjects to take during your degree. Understandably, it is premature for many students to make decisions about a career at the very beginning of their degree. If you are in this position, you may be often advised to keep your options open by selecting a course that reflects the core subjects or prescribed subjects required by the law societies. This allows you to gain the necessary qualifications to become professionally qualified if you choose to do that, while giving you time to consider other career options and broaden your subject choice in your second and subsequent years at university. As you might imagine, if you choose to study the core subjects then options are reduced for other subjects, whether law-related or not. At first glance it might seem that the choices open to Scottish students are particularly restricted, but it should be remembered that the majority of Scots law students take the four-year honors degree. It is in the honors years that individual options can be pursued over and above the core subjects prescribed by the Law Society. In England and Wales, and Northern Ireland, the law degree (even an honors degree) is studied over a three-year period with the third and final year being devoted to honors subjects of the student's own choice.


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