Where has the summer gone, eh? “What summer?” I hear you cry in response, as we shamble from one non-descript-not-quite-so-rubbish-as-the-others season into the conjoined malaise that is autumn/winter. Thankfully, the reader will note this is not another weather blog, although I have dabbled as a national weather reporter, don’tcha know. Instead, this post welcomes the new academic year, which for the University of Aberdeen begins on 17 September.
Half in jest, half in crowd-sourcing mode, I canvassed opinions via Twitter on what I should tell my new and returning students on the first day of term. I received some interesting replies, such as the semi-pejorative “law is a makey-uppey thing,” and the wholly-pejorative “get out while you still can.” One correspondent from another institution noted he planned to simply tell students what to do in week 1 and wait for submission 12 weeks later, a hands-off approach that may just work for some courses and students but I have no plans to mirror (yet). One (idealistic?) correspondent noted “passing the exam will just take you closer to qualifying; learning the subject is what makes you a lawyer.”
Two correspondents made specific comments about or relating to the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (the DPLP), alternatively styled “Professional Education and Training 1” (PEAT 1 – PEAT 2 being a 2 year traineeship with a Scots law firm). I shall explain what that Scotland-specific course is and what it entails below. Of these comments, the first implored that I press home the importance of the “Law Society of Scotland Professional Subjects“, i.e. the subjects that all Scots Bachelor of Law degrees must cover, to my undergradute students, as these can impact on future study prospects and particularly entry to the DPLP. The second was more pragmatic and, dare I say it in this blog that I try to keep apolitical, just a little political. Although not so much phrased as something I should say, it suggested that my students should be concerned about the exclusion of poorer graduates from the profession and that any plugs for the Twitter and blog campaign of @CFALP1 would be welcome.
Consider that your plug, CFALP. What is the campaign about? That is difficult to explain without explaining the nature of the DPLP, so here goes. (Lawyers may wish to skim read this next section, but this is when I start to get to the main point of the blog.)
Last year I was drafted in to provide a bit of cover to the inaugural year of the DPLP. I have a few stock ways of explaining the qualification depending on who I am speaking to. 1) To non-legally minded folk, I suggest it is teacher training for lawyers. 2) To legally minded non-Scots, I either: (a) suggest it is the equivalent of the LPC (the Legal Practice Course in England & Wales); or (b) flap about explaining it is a postgraduate course where you learn about lawyering (answer (a) tends to only work when speaking to those of the Anglo-American legal tradition). 3) To legally minded Scots above the age of 21, I point out it is the successor to the Diploma in Legal Practice (DLP). The insertion of “Professional” to the moniker clearly makes a world of difference. (To legally minded Scots below the age of 21, I employ a variation on 2)(b).) It has a gatekeeper role: without a DPLP, you cannot become a solicitor in Scotland, even if you opt for the alternative route to qualification that involves a three-year pre-Diploma training contract with a Scottish solicitor and studying for the Society’s professional exams.
Some background. I studied for and obtained the DLP in the noughties. I enjoyed my DLP year. This may have had as much to do with me moving city, taking up part-time work as a research assistant/tutor, joining a new pipe band and seeing a tremendous football team every other weekend (one of those statements might not be true), but I do recall a member of the law school, who has since become a colleague, explaining that the intermediary “skills” year between LLB and practice could come in useful for those moments when you are not 100% sure what to do in practice. The broad spectrum of the bridging qualification was designed to give you an inkling and, whilst it is inherently difficult for me to pin anything down from my time in practice, I think this was the case. I was fortunate enough to secure grant funding from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) for my DLP year.
So the year was not a write-off for me, but I know others, be they students or the profession that welcomed those students, who enjoyed a moan or two about the course. Reform was felt necessary to produce the intrants the profession needed. Was it really necessary to take a whole academic year for this course? As a student, I recall this being discussed when a repesentative from the Law Society of Scotland was present. The reply came that the relevant institutions were hamstrung by the fact that the relevant funding body in Scotland, SAAS, provided money for a postgraduate diploma qualification for some students, albeit this was only for something like 40% of students and on academic merit (based on the professional subjects), rather than financially means-tested basis. As noted by the Law Society in 2011, “Since the inception of the [DLP] in 1981 a number of [SAAS] funded places have been allocated to the [DLP]. There have been 300 funded places each year since 1995,” so this was far from insignificant. Moving away from a diploma might jeopardise the funding, so any reform that took place might have a certain end point in mind. With that backdrop, a new DPLP came along, with the main change being the introduction of more electives but also a stronger focus on certain skills and reflection.
Fees for the new DPLP tend to be higher than they were for the DLP across all relevant institutions. That might have been tolerable, given a more fit for purpose qualification was the programmed end result, but the financial situation has been compounded somewhat. Grant funding for students was withdrawn and loans became the currency (per the already linked 2011 statement of Law Society). The Scottish Government argue this is a competitive package of support that in fact widens access to the profession, as everyone can access support rather than those who just happen to be competent at certain subjects irrespective of how much they need support, but others counter that is not quite the point. There has been coverage in the Guardian, the Scotsman and the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland of the very real financial worries of students. Others directly affected will make the case far better than I can.
So where does that leave us? Although I was in no way involved in the group that steered towards the new DPLP, I do wonder whether the grant-funding tail ended up wagging the qualification dog. The tail has now been amputated, but the dog lives on. Whether or not the DPLP is the best bridging qualification to the profession is a debate I do not want to enter into in an already lengthy blog, but I should acknowledge for completeness (a) that the DPLP providing institutions could easily be cast as “turkeys not wanting to vote for Christmas” if they stand in the way of reform, but (b) I think there is merit in a staging post of sorts and anything too compressed might not quite do the trick. There is an even bigger debate about whether you might be able to embed a skills element within the DPLP, or whether you should go down a “Melbourne” or JD route where law is not a first degree. Those debates notwithstanding, we are where we are. Nothing will change this year and there is, I imagine, little appetite amongst those who designed the DPLP to rush to change things again very soon. So I come back to my original point. What should I say to the students when they rightly point out how much they are paying yet struggle to measure the “skills” or “insight” a DPLP provides when viewed through the undergraduate prism the majority of them will know and struggle to shake off?
I can say “you need to do this” or “take your medicine”, which is entirely true of a gatekeeper qualification but not exactly helpful. I could say the camaraderie the course engenders will serve them well, but then again so would a nice away weekend or a summer camp. I might throw in an ad lib about the Chewbacca defence or another “at the coalface” yarn or “war story”. I will say a few words about the professionalism and participation stipulations of the Law Society in as light hearted a manner as best I can. So I will try my very best to make the best of it, but none of this changes the fact that the course is what it is and students, staff and the profession will need to knuckle down and make the best of it in the current form for at least one more year and likely more.
I do have one thing I plan to say, based on a conversation I had with a computer scientist. He introduced me to the insight of Edsger Wybe Dijkstra, who noted that “computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes” (although Wikiquotes tells me this is misattributed). So it is for the DPLP. The LLB teaches you about law, whereas the DPLP provides you with the tools to lawyer. The only telescope guide available in Scotland at present is the DPLP, so hopefully I and others around the country can make it work.
So what else should I say to the new DPLP students? Further thoughts welcome.