The Legal Hunger Games

Second year of law school paved the way for a shift in my ideological view of both studying law academically and what it would be like to work in practice. This did not occur as a result of being subject to a year’s worth of EU law. Instead, it  actually stemmed from an article I stumbled across whilst studying jurisprudence (some would argue worse than EU).

When I say I had a change in view, well actually my expectations in first year were somewhat ambiguous.  My passion for law stemmed from good A-level results rather than a life long desire to enter the legal profession. That being said I was as intrigued and excited as any other first year starting out on what could be a major definitive element of their future.  Duncan Kennedy’s 1982 article Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy managed to encapsulate thoughts that were present in my mind yet I could not quite fathom.

Competition

The competitive nature surrounding the academic study of law is thrust upon you consistently throughout university. As you progress into second, third and fourth year the ever looming cloud that is the process of gaining a training contract gets bigger and bigger. The news of a fellow student gaining a training contract passes through the law library quicker than a forest fire. Are students happy for them? Jealous? Both?  I found myself feeling the same emotions, but why?

Duncan Kennedy suggests law schools generate a system of rank ordering between students based on grades and examination performance. This system is essential on an individual level in order to assess how well you are progressing. This is not the issue; rather the competitive edge surrounding this system is the issue. It differentiates students whilst stoking the fire of competitiveness. In a way this can be viewed as essential, the legal world after university is extremely competitive. It’s competitive when finding a job. It’s competitive finding clients. It’s competitive in providing the best legal advice andworking for the best firm.

Maybe a competitive learning environment is essential to produce the best lawyers. H owever it wasn’t something I believed to be as prominent as it is. Does this competitive environment prepare those at the lower end of the scale to settle for a future in a legal career dependant on those higher up in the hierarchy? Duncan Kennedy states that if students are willing to accept dependency they are accepting a role which suggests ‘it is more prudent to kiss the lash than to strike out on your own’.

Competitiveness is all well and good when you’re trying to acquire something; it gives you a fighting edge to acquire the best possible outcome. It can be defined as defeating or establishing superiority over others. This is quite an interesting aspect when you think about it, brilliant for achieving your personal goals, but establishing superiority over others does not prepare students or aid a student in developing his team working skills, or social skills for that matter. Skills that are predominantly important in many paths of life as well as the legal profession. This I see as an issue with the academic approach to studying law. However, competitiveness is a natural characteristic of mine.  Does this render my agreement with Duncan Kennedy invalid? Hopefully not. Eliminating competiveness from a learning environment would be more detrimental than advantageous, therefore a balance must be struck.

Clinical legal education: competitiveness through a new prism

Taking an active part in clinical legal education shifted my views on studying law once again. The practical approach to studying law through this method is the main reason why I chose to study at Northumbria University.  It manages to strike a balance between the significance of competiveness and the necessity of team work, both essential factors in any profession. You enter the Student Law Office with limited experience and you leave having learned some invaluable lessons.

The competitiveness stems from the knowledge that throughout the whole year you are being individually assessed. Hearing these words in your first firm meeting reiterate the need for the competitive shield law students carry around with them. But as the year progresses and you begin to work with your partner you slowly start to realise that the most effective way to achieve the most efficient work for your client is by working together. All of a sudden you’re communicating with others – supervisors, administrators and fellow students   – and you see how developing these skills are essential to achieving future success.

Competitiveness now begins to creep back into the picture but this time the individualistic nature of it has been replaced with a common notion. The competitiveness is now focussed on achieving the best possible outcome for your client rather than  achieving the best possible outcome for yourself. In a sense the nature of competition has been shifted. There isn’t a general feeling that the firms in the Student Law Office are trying to compete with each other. Rather, they are all working towards the same goal: providing a professional service to their clients. Clinical legal education offers an approach to learning which the academic approach cannot, and this I believe is a step forward in the study of law.

There is no doubt competitiveness is an essential characteristic and there is no way of avoiding it in the life of academic study but its application can be detrimental when it overrides other important characteristics. In my opinion it is the very nature of team work which gives those seeking it a competitive advantage.

This blog post was written by Matt Boxshall. Matt is currently an M Law student at Northumbria University and working in a business and commercial firm in the Student Law Office. Whilst studying at Northumbria he has developed an interest in the way law is taught and the effects it has on students. On graduation he hopes to travel before securing a training contract which will allow him to further develop his interests in business and international law.

Matt B

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Editor’s note: a series of three reflective pieces

You will have seen that our last blog post, written by Vicky Pridmore, is a thought-provoking piece on the role that reputation plays in a law firm. A law firm is, of course, a business itself – and Vicky’s piece invites us to consider the importance of reputation for businesses.

Vicky’s piece is the first in a series of three reflective pieces which will be available on our blog in the coming weeks. Legal clinics, like the Student Law Office, provide the perfect opportunity to develop reflective practice. Our students are “learning through doing” and that means evaluating what they have done and how they might change that practice in the future. It also includes considering how wider cultural, social and economic factors might impact on their work or the needs of their client.

What’s coming up? 

Our next reflective blog post comes from Matt Boxshall and is entitled “The Legal Hunger Games”. In this piece Matt will look at the competitive nature of law school and how his views have changed during his time working in the Student Law Office.

Juliet Gough’s piece will draw our series of reflective posts to a close. Juliet recently attended a digital training event in London. In her article she shares the insights she learned from that day.

Want to know more about reflection? 

For an excellent guide to reflection in clinical legal education see Chapter 12 of A Student Guide to Clinical Legal Education.

This post was written by Elaine Campbell. Elaine is a Solicitor Tutor at Northumbria Law School, responsible for the work of the Business & Commercial firms. 

How important is a law firm’s reputation?

The Telegraph recently reported on the release of a YouTube video by a City firm trainee commenting on very personal religious beliefs.  Since then many firms have been asking what they would do if they had to deal with the same situation. There have been questions about whether there should be disciplinary action, whether policies across the City need to be tightened up, or if indeed anything should be done. All these questions are being asked due to one thing – the firms’ reputation. Considering the place of modern law firms in business, it seems as though concern about reputation is a fair one, but to what extent should it limit the actions of trainees and staff?

Law Firms as Businesses

Although in the past, law firms were seen as just a location to obtain legal advice and nothing more. Nowadays this has changed. Due to increased competition and greater client expectations, firms are now much more akin to businesses. As any business person knows, the reputation of a business is invaluable, otherwise the goodwill in a business wouldn’t receive its own monetary value on a sale or merger. To protect this value, businesses will have strict internal controls and disciplinary proceedings in place, which mean that the employee faces ramifications for harming reputation or client relationships. These can range from an internal “slap on the wrist” to an action for dismissal, depending on the severity of employee’s action.

As businesses, law firms have already put internal controls in place to discipline employees in order to protect reputation. This case though seems slightly different. The firm in question, as many others do, encourage an environment where staff members are free to express their opinion and the firm actively works towards diversity in their workforce. Free opinion and diversity are two invaluable qualities in any firm, therefore restricting opinion through disciplinary procedures seems counter-intuitive to the firm’s ethos and fundamental beliefs. If disciplinary action is taking place or if firms tightened up procedures it would seem contrary to their beliefs.

On the other hand – does the trainee in question not have a level of responsibility and duty towards the firm, to perhaps be more conservative about how or where he expresses his views? A City salary is certainly something that law students aspire to and trainees work hard for, but surely with such a high level of remuneration the trainees should be duty bound to the firm to think in their best interests when speaking publically? It seems unjustified that trainees should control their everyday actions in fear of what may, or may not be published.

Law firms as professionals

There is another element to this matter that most businesses don’t have to consider. Law firms are professional organisations. Most of the revenue making activities of the firm are done by staff that are either professionally accredited or training to be professionally accredited. Although professionalism is something that is taken into account by all employers, in the case of solicitors there is a particular emphasis on it. This is more so considering a recent survey that found that only 47% of legal service users trusted their legal advisor.[1] As the profession desperately tries to turn around this lack of trust, is it better to adhere to strict internal controls for the sake of the profession, or should the public be able to expect the quality of our work and our opinions are two different matters? The SRA code enforces standards on all solicitors that make sure they maintain public trust, but this should not put a gagging order on solicitors and their opinion. Solicitors’ business is dependent on opinion in part, as legal arguments are usually constructed on two conflicting opinions on a point of law. From this view point it seems even more bizarre that there should be a limit on opinion imposed by the regulator, particularly as to do so may damage client work and therefore damage reputation further. Yet still, this lack of trust the public has is concerning, and one that is perhaps best addressed by further regulation that seeks to limit firms being embarrassed by actions of their employees.

Conclusion

As much as it would be an ideal world if everyone could separate out the quality of someone’s work from their own personal opinions about a person, it seems as if this might be a far off fantasy. This is not to say that internal discipline should come under draconian control. What I would advocate for is the maintenance of personal accountability and control. As a profession, we claim to be intelligent and savvy individuals, so surely ones that can exercise personal accountability and control. One trainee, who is perceived as failing to do this, does not mean that a whole new system of internal regulation needs to be created – perhaps just a quick reminder that YouTube isn’t the best place for your opinions. From the latest reports, this seems to be the approach the firm in question has taken, but it will be interesting to see if future events illicit such a cool headed response.

[1] Legal Services Consumer Panel “Tracker Survey 2014” (Legal Services Consumer Panel, 2014) http://www.legalservicesconsumerpanel.org.uk/ourwork/CWI/documents/2014%20Tracker%20Briefing%202_Trust_Sat.pdf

This blog post was written by Vicky Pridmore. Vicky is currently an M Law Student at Northumbria University and working in a business and commercial firm in the Student Law Office. Due to this experience, and previous work experience, she has developed an interest in the commercial world. On graduation she hopes to secure a training contract that will allow her to further her interest in both national and international commercial matters.