South African legal practitioners are no longer confident that LLB-graduates are aptly equipped to enter the legal profession. A survey done by financial services provider PPS revealed attorneys are increasingly concerned about the quality of LLB-degrees offered at our universities. Out of 500 attorneys surveyed in the second quarter of 2012, only 21% believed the current LLB-degree sufficiently prepares prospective legal practitioners to succeed in the profession.
Academics, however, disagree. “Lecturers in the Law Faculty at Stellenbosch University frequently discuss the academic programme with law firms,” faculty dean, Prof Sonia Human, says. “From the feedback we receive it appears our graduates are still sought after in practice.”
The University of Cape Town (UCT) also regularly engages with members of the legal profession, Prof Pamela Schwikkard, dean of the Faculty of Law, says. “I do not believe the curriculum (of the LLB) is an issue. The profession has always been responsible for the practical training of law graduates – and is best placed to do that.”
Lack of basic skills
According to Nic Swart, chief executive of the Law Society of South Africa and head of its training division, there are notable skills shortages among law graduates, specifically in the fields of literacy, numeracy and computers and research and analytical skills. These deficiencies, however, should be traced back to our schooling system. “One of the solutions would be to place much stronger emphasis on academic skills at school level,” Swart says.
Standards of school education were also of great concern to participants of the PPS survey. Confidence in the education system dropped five percentage points to 45%, Gerhard Joubert, head of group marketing and stakeholder relations says. “Attorneys have huge reservations about current standards throughout the education sector, not only about the status of the LLB degree, but also of the wider education system.”
Universities agree. “It is extremely difficult for universities and the law profession to train students either in theory or in practice when they do not have the requisite literacy or numeracy skills. Unfortunately, school leavers very often do not have these skills,” UCT’s Schwikkard says.
Stellenbosch University also experiences problems with school leavers who do not have the necessary skills. “Especially in the first year, lecturers find it has become more challenging in the past few years to bridge the gap between school and university,” Human says.
She points out that the university continuously evaluates the academic programmes and introduced a Writing Skills-module into the first year programme to address the need to develop the writing skills of first year students. “We have also adapted the assessment structure of certain modules to make them more writing intensive.”
Duration of the LLB
However, the lack of basic skills has been exacerbated by the fact that the LLB is no longer a post-graduate degree, but a four-year undergraduate qualification, with the exception of Stellenbosch University’s Law Faculty which offers both options.
“Many attorneys, including myself, hold the view that the LLB should be a postgraduate qualification,” Jan Stemmett, co-chairman of the Law Society says.
Prior to 1998, the LLB was a postgraduate degree and the qualification would take either five or six years, depending on the route the aspirant lawyer took. “The rationale (behind the change to an undergraduate qualification) was to make legal education more accessible,” Schwikkard says. “But it is not at all clear whether the four year-degree has achieved this goal.”
Schwikkard reiterates that the academic curriculum of the LLB-degree cannot be the reason for the legal industry’s low confidence in the preparedness of graduates to enter the profession. “It is rather whether the four year-degree provides the time to develop the more generic skills required for the work place – and whether universities have the resources to compensate for deficiencies in the school system.”
“Very few students who enrol for the four year undergraduate LLB completes it within the required timeframe – at best only 20%,” Schwikkard says. “The ‘four year-students’ have had the least amount of time to develop literacy, numeracy and life skills and are less sought after than the privileged few who embark on the LLB as a second undergraduate degree.”
The Law Society will soon meet with the deans of law faculties, scheduled to take place at the end of October to discuss, among other things, the curricula of the various law degrees offered by universities. There is a definite need for more uniform standards among the various law faculties, Swart says. “Law is a complex field which changes frequently. I believe the profession should also have input in curriculum planning of law faculties to keep up with these changes.”