Lord Neuberger delivered the Lord Upjohn lecture on legal education last week. The timing of the lecture was fortuitous, the Legal and Education Training Review (LETR) is expected to deliver its first report next month, in what has been described as the most ‘fundamental rethink since the Ormrod report of 1971’.

The lecture gave Lord Neuberger an opportunity to speculate as to the content of the report and also suggest the manner in which the report should be received and implemented.  Lord Neuberger covered a wide range of material, but the overall theme of his speech an emphasis on caution in reforms to legal education and urging the profession not to lose sight of the purpose of legal education. Lord Neuberger began emphasising that that although the LETR had been created in order to test the hypothesis put forward by David Edmonds, the chair of the Legal Services Board, that the ‘current framework for legal education and training was simply not fit for purpose’, this was a hypothesis only and it was key that the report was received with open minds. Neuberger made it clear that his own view was that:

“it remains an open question whether the hypothesis that the present system is not fit for purpose is anything other than assertion, whether it is made generally or in respect of aspects of the system. There is real reason for doubting whether there is that much wrong. UK lawyers enjoy a high worldwide reputation. Places on our university law degrees, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, are highly sought after. Research and publications of academics in our universities are of high value and enjoy international recognition. Our courts and our substantive law are prized throughout the world”

Lord Neuberger went on to suggest that the legal profession needed to think more carefully about what the purpose of legal education was. He suggested the two fundamental principles outlined in the 2007 Legal Services Act: the need to protect and promote the public interest, and to support the constitutional principle of the rule of law. In keeping with these objectives the profession should keep in mind that  “It is not merely another form of business, solely aimed at maximising profit whilst providing a competitive service to consumers … lawyers also owe overriding specific duties to the court and to society”.  If these principles were also deemed to guide legal education then “asking and answering the question whether legal education and training is fit for purpose, or the more measured question of how it could be improved, must begin with an assessment of whether it properly equips those entering the profession with the knowledge, skills, integrity and sense of independence which will enable them to play their proper role in maintaining the rule of law.”

Lord Neuberger made a number of suggestions as to how the current system might change to ensure that such aims could be achieved, these included greater co-operation between the SRA and IPS to facilitate the use of CILEX qualification as a route to qualification as a solicitor, and a greater emphasis on professional skills during university and non-university education.

Two parts of Neuberger’s speech in particular are likely to catch the attention of commentators. The first are his comments on diversity. He suggested that at present “legal education and training, and indeed entry into the legal profession, has much to be happy about so far as women are concerned and not that much to be unhappy about with regard to ethnic minorities. The problem there, of course, lies at the later stage, that of progression through the profession.“ He suggested that at present there is a limited amount which legal education and training can do about the problem, but (in a quote likely to be much repeated) “The professions cannot and should not be the whipping boys and girls to whom the Government transfers the blame for the inherent inequalities and dysfunctionalities of society”.

The other section of his speech which may well draw comment were his views on the potential reform of the BPTC, in particular those suggested by Mr Barnard – who has suggested abolishing the BPTC all together. Lord Neuberger stated that:

“Mr Barnard’s suggestion is, in part, based on his view that the number of students paying to sit the BPTC, but who do not obtain pupillage, is a matter of a scandal. That is a view shared by others, but there is a contrary perspective. More, probably many more, students complete the BPTC than will obtain pupillage, but, provided that those students are aware of the realities they face, should we interfere with their personal autonomy? Further, we should not discount the likelihood that the BPTC will assist in obtaining other forms of employment. “

These comments are likely to garner a mixed reception amongst current and former BPTC students. While it may be the case that abolishing the BPTC altogether is too drastic a solution, at present there are  problems with the course and current admissions procedures that cannot be resolved simply by making sure that “students are aware of the realities they face”. Law schools, as feeders into the legal profession, also need to take their wider responsibilities to the profession and society more seriously. They need to be more stringent in their admissions criteria and own up to the fact that ‘making students aware of realities’ does not simply consist of publishing a list of statistics of student places versus numbers of pupillages, it means really encouraging students to take a long hard look at themselves and their experiences and the current legal market and making a careful and realistic assessment of whether embarking on the course is a sensible financial investment. Unfortunately, it is of little comfort to BPTC graduates that the qualification may assist in obtaining other forms of employment, it is a vocational training course for a very specific profession. If students are seeking other forms of professional development then there are other courses for £16,000 that would be of far more value.

Lord Neuberger is right to celebrate aspects of the UK legal profession, as evidenced by the respect it garners across the world. He is also right to urge caution in reform, as seen by the swinging reforms carried out in education over the past decade, ill thought out short term reforms can be very damaging. His remarks can also be seen as an opening salvo in the debate that is sure to ensue once the report is published. However, Lord Neuberger’s remarks, especially with regard to the BPTC, suggest that the pace of change to the system is likely to be slow.