The Future of Irish Legal Education

Aula Maxima, UCC, via their siteAnd so to my Alma Mater, University College Cork (UCC), where the Faculty of Law hosted the second annual Legal Education Symposium last Friday. This year’s event, organised by Dr Fidelma White and Mr Gerard Murphy and again generously sponsored by Dillon Eustace Solicitors, had a decidedly transatlantic flavo(u)r, with of course a good deal of Cork relish as well.

The venue was UCC’s handsome 19th century Aula Maxima (pictured above left), and the delegates were welcomed in a characteristically witty and incisive speech by Dermot Gleeson, SC (former Attorney General, current Chairman of the Governing Body of UCC, and quondam lecturer in the UCC Law Faculty). He shared with us some thoughts on the various-interlinkages between the academy, practice, and the bench. He said that the best superior court judge since independence was Seamus Henchy (something I have long also believed), in part because Gleeson likes the way Henchy wrote, which Gleeson speculated may be in part because Henchy was a law professor in UCD before he went to the bench. He concluded by expressing his skepiticism about the instant transferability the science model of PhDs to Irish law, a matter to which I will return below.

The Chair of the first plenary session was Bryan McMahon (former Chair of the Irish Universities Quality Board, current Judge of the High Court, and quondam Professor of Law and Head of the Department of Law in UCC). He reinforced Dermot Gleeson’s point that there is nothing inevitable about the decision of a judge, and that teachers and advocates open the possibilities to students and judges.

The first plenary session largely concerned the law school undergraduate curriculum. Joseph Singer (Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard Law School) spoke about the recent reforms of the Harvard curriculum. He began by observing that he now had irrefutable proof of the existence of God, because getting the Harvard faculty to agree on anything, let alone curriculum reform, was nothing less than a miracle! Little had changed with Harvard instruction since Christopher Columbus Langdell had introduced the case method, even as that method had proved just as useful in the hands of Llangdellian formalists as it did in the hands of post- Llangdellian post-formalists, such as Realists, Progressives and later theorists. In any event, the basic structure of the curriculum had changed little, and when Harvard Law School’s new Dean, Prof Elena Kagan, commenced a programme to examine it, the Faculty agreed it had little real connection with a list of 20 or so skills they felt that lawyers ought to have. And so they began to design a new first year curriculum which would introduce many such skills and provide the basis on which other could be acquired in later years. They found, for example, that graduates were biased to the common law over statutes, and were good at argument as to what the law ought to be on any given topic, but terrible at practical judgment and giving advice to clients on any given issue. And so they have introduced three new courses; the first relates to statutes, regulation, and administrative law, providing techniques which the students are bringing to bear in other classes; the second is a required course from a stream of subjects with distinct internationalist flavors; and the third is a new course which Singer says he has to invent, on Problems and Theories, which will integrate the Moot Court program, and which will focus on issues as they arise in practice, by examining the various legal issues that apply on an evolving fact situation and considering the various possible outcomes, not merely litigation.

The second speaker was Sarah Macdonald (Dean of the Law School, the Honorable Society of King’s Inns), discussing the recent reform of the curriculum for the degree of Barrister-at-Law. The focus of the changes was upon providing the skills and knowledge for modern practice, and in getting the students to start to think like barristers, and in particular like the junior barristers that the majority of the graduates are likely to be. She stressed that her graduates had to be capable of independent thought and research, and that they had to attain a standard of competence to practice to graduate.

The third speaker was Marie McGonagle (Head of the Department of Law, NUI Galway), who explained how her department had, over time, made a series of incremental changes which had the effect of evolving an exciting curriculum located in theory (the ongoing introduction of new degrees, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level) and practice (the commitment to a strong clinical programme in the degrees) and use of technology. It struck me that, given that it has been a gradual and progressive approach, unlike the fundamental transformation in Harvard or the year-zero rebuilding in the Kings Inn’s, it was a much more congenial way in which go about the process of change: identify an element of the curriculum that needs improving, deal with that, and then move on to the next element.

During the questions, Prof David Gwynn Morgan (UCC) took the opportunity, amongst reminiscences of times past with Dermot Gleeson and Bryan McMahon, to call once again for the revival of a forum similar to the now-defunct Advisory Council on Legal Education and Training, in which there could be regular discussion about such matters. I couldn’t agree more about the principle, though I wouldn’t replicate the ACLET model, being more attracted to a forum primarily for Deans or Heads of the University Law Faculties or Schools, along Australian, Canadian, or UK lines. I hear on the grapevine, though not yet formally, that there may yet be an inugural meeting of such a forum some time early in the new year. I hope I hear true, and the sooner the better.

The symposium then broke out into four parallel roundtable discussion sessions, on Teaching with Technology (chaired by Prof Steve Hedley, UCC), Joint Law Degrees (chaired by Prof Patrick O’Donovan, Dept of French, UCC), Pedagogy in Law (chaired by Penny Andrews, Valparaiso and CUNY), and Developing Practical Skills (chaired by yours truly, though I was just as interested in the other three roundtable sessions, so agreeing to chair this session was a welcome means of making up my mind which one I would attend!) In my session, Andrea McArdle (CUNY) talked about the signficant commitment CUNY has made to a writing-led curriculum, implementing in the Law School the university’s formal programme on Writing Across the Curriculum. Larry Donnelly (NUI Galway, and – so far as I could see – the only repeat-speaker from last year’s Symposium) shared with us some fascinating observations about teaching legal research in an Irish Law School (it was reassuring to hear that the issues are the same everywhere). And Karen Smyth (Law Society of Ireland, Courthouse Chambers, Cork) described the process of teaching professional legal skills. It was a great session; I learned a lot; and I’m glad to have attended and chaired it.

The second plenary session largely concerned the law school graduate curriculum. As I took my seat, I had Dermot Gleeson’s skepticism ringing in my ears about the instant transferability the science model of PhDs to Irish law, since that was the main business of the afternoon. It was chaired by Gerard Quinn (now Professor of Law, NUI Galaway; it was in his Jurisprudence class when he was a lecturer in UCC that I first heard about Langdell; and his enthusiasm and erudition were significant factors in my pursuit of an academic career). The first speaker was Prof John Mee (UCC), who meditated on the drive towards PhDs in law as part of the Fourth Level Ireland project, and provided a thoughtful exposition of the potential benefits of PhDs in law, helping the Irish legal system to raise its standards and achieve its potential, especially in the areas of law reform, contribution to the NGO sector, and in the development of a specialist cadre of critically trained practitioners; and he concluded by examining the role of the PhD as training for an academic career. The next speaker was Prof Colin Scott (UCD), and he picked up largely where John left off, largely considering the question: what is a PhD in law. If John’s paper examined the policy case for the drive towards PhD programmes in law, then Colin’s considered what the impact of that policy would be in the modern university and current legal profession. He examined the dynamics of these worlds, independently and in their overlap, and argued that a PhD said a range of positive things about its holder, from the means of completion of the work itself, to the various professional, educational and research skills which will have been acquired along the way. He considered the nature of the PhD in law as a paradigm of law school research in the light of Chris McCrudden‘s piece “Legal Research and the Social Sciences” (2006) 122 Law Quarterly Review 632; and he concluded that there are inherent benefits in structured programmes leading to PhDs in law. The third speaker in the session was me, filling in for the absent Conor O’Carroll (Assistant Director – Research, IUA); and I picked up largely where Colin left off. My presentation (.ppt here) was entitled “Slowly Swimming to Shore: Designing a Skills Programme for TCD’s 1st-Year Postgraduate Research Students (2006-2007)”; and, in it, I discussed an effort in the School of Law, Trinity College, Dublin in the last academic year to develop a programme for first-year PhD students which would reflect the issues, concerns, policies and theories discussed by John and Colin.

Finally, Celia Wells (Past President of the Society of Legal Scholars, and Professor of Law, University of Durham) wrapped up the day with a series of reflections on Legal Education and Scholarship, picking up and amplifing upon several of the day’s themes, and adding some new ones of her own. One stood out for me. Right at the start of the day, Dermot Gleeson had argued that there were now far too many barristers in the country; but Sarah Macdonald showed no sign at all that her Law School was producing too many; and Colin Scott had argued that Gleeson had taken far too narrow a view of the kinds of fora in which barristers might appear. In one theme of her final remarks, Celia argued that there were still too few women lawyers and far too few making it in the professions. One of those who has is the Dean of the Faculty of Law, UCC, Prof Caroline Fennell, whose words of wisdom and thanks brought the day to a close.

Another theme, not taken up by Celia, but which struck me at various stages during the day, related to reform and change. Law Schools are behemoths, like battleships with large turning circles. The NUIG lesson, as Marie McGonagle described it, might be that if changes in direction are small and incremental, then the ship can sail forward relatively smoothly. The Harvard lesson, as Joe Singer described it, might be that a major change in direction can still be accomplished, if everyone on board is ready for it. If these lessons can be applied to the graduate developments discussed in the second plenary, then they can be successfully accomplished. But if a ship is becalmed or floating aimlessly, or even simply following long established shipping routes for the want of any better direction, then it’s never going to get anywhere.

In the end, the, all in all, it was a wonderful day – exciting, challenging, even enthusing. However, though it was a well-attended conference, neverthelesss, given the importance of the issues involved, one can only wish that it had been even better attended. Those who weren’t there definitely missed out. If the conversations at the Symposium, both formal and informal, are either symptomatic or constituitive of the direction in which Irish legal education is going, then we are in for some interesting and welcome developments.