International and European Perspectives in Legal Education

The theme of the afternoon plenary session of the third Legal Education Symposium was on

International and European Perspectives in Legal Education

As if she didn’t have enough to do as one of the organisers, this session was chaired by Prof Blanaid Clarke, and the session examined the ongoing the Bologna Process, which aims to create a common European Higher Education Area (to which her co-organiser referred in the first plenary session this morning).

The first speaker was Dr Attracta Halpin, Registrar of the National University of Ireland on the topic of European Higher Education post-Bologna 1999: Napoleonic tendencies?, discussing how much standardisation is likely to be achieved by 2020 and how much could be considered desirable. She gave a whistle-stop tour of what the Bologna process is all about, where it came from, where it is now, and where it is going. It was built on the concept of student and teacher mobility, and comparability of degree programmes. The second speaker was Prof Frans Vanistendael of the Centre for a Common Law of Europe at the Katholieje Universiteit Leuven on the topic of Ten Years of Bachelor – Master Reform in Legal Education, and in effect, he looked at Bologna in practice in law schools. He began by observing that some countries were very quick to implement Bologna-driven reforms and are now revising their implementations, whilst others are more thoughful and measured and some still debating the reforms. So far as law is concerned, lawyers concluded that legal education requires more than the Bologna minimum of 3 years (180 ECTS), so that in continental Europe, most courses are four to five years. Of course, the common law jurisdictions were of the opinion that BA-MA was just not relevant to them.

The ECTS system was intended to integrate alternative learning experiences and to encourage students to build their own study track. But this often means that the coherence of the curriculum is destroyed, and students are ill-served, especially on the continent. He argued that the US model (undergraduate degree, graduate law school including clinical and professional education, and then specialist post-graduate (LLM, PhD) programmes) is a much better structure. But this is very expensive. A political impetus for the process was to decrease public spending on university education by reducing the number of years of study, so an extension of legal training has not therefore commended itself to the politicians.

As for what we now have, he pointed out that there is still very little comparability of law degrees in their titles, and there is still a great deal of unwillingness on the part of home institutions to give credit for compulsory subjects in foreign systems. And he observed that most of the countries of the EU have a comparative disadvantage: English is the international lingua franca, which benefits England and to some extent Ireland in the international marketplace; England, France and Germany have former-colonial outreach; the Benelux countries have the EU institutions; but after that, EU countries have to focus on niche positions. And Bologna can’t help wth this.

For all these reasons, he saw Bologna as a missed opportunity. So he asked the question whether law schools should now reform: he said that the top law schools in European Common Law jurisdictions still provide the best general intellectual education (I don’t think he was pandering to his audience, but he may have been). This is, he said, in part because there is far more drastic selection at entry than is common on the continent (in effect, the US general degree is replaced by English and Irish secondary schools). But, for reasons of maintenance of standards, selective common law universities are slow to engage in exchanges with less selective continental universities.

and he concluded that the over-all result of the BA-MA reform has been to professionalise legal education at a very early stage and to diminish the general intellectual content of law curricula.

And after the Rapporteur wrapped up, the discussions continued in other fora.