We recently held a virtual discussion forum for law faculty, law librarians and legal career professionals, to consider how today’s law courses are serving students’ needs. We explored what legal employers are looking for in their candidates and whether law courses have got the balance right between knowledge of the law and employability. Presenters included:
The session was very interactive, with great insights from both presenters and participants. In this article we will share some of the key takeaways from the forum.
We started the session by asking everyone what came to mind when we said ‘employability.’ Not surprisingly, everyone had a different response to this – the top answers were ‘skills,’ ‘work ready’ and ‘getting graduate skills’.
For this part of the forum we were joined by Ria Hill, Lecturer in Law at Wolverhampton Law School. She explored the extent to which law courses provide students with the practical skills necessary for the working world. And in the fallout of the pandemic, she considered if the online delivery of legal education helped or hindered this.
In response to changing attitudes in the legal sector over the last few years, Wolverhampton Law School decided to incorporate a more practical focus, having conducted a curriculum review in preparation for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). To better prepare their students for a career in law, prospective lawyers need to learn about more than just the law – but also gain an understanding of the skills required to practice law in the future, as well as how to apply the law in a practical context. Taking a more practical approach also stands students in good stead for careers outside the law, providing them with crucial transferable skills.
More practical assessment
Wolverhampton has also changed how it assesses students. Instead of relying on exams and coursework, there is an increased focus on formal student presentations. This has allowed students to better demonstrate their research to lecturers, in addition to written work. Furthermore, there has been a greater importance placed on helping students to develop their skills of negotiation, e.g. as part of a module on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).
The law school has encouraged students to volunteer, as a way to obtain hands-on experience. The university runs a legal advice centre in the town centre and allows students to interview members of the public on a wide range of legal issues (e.g. consumer problems) whilst supervised by senior lecturers who are also practicing solicitors. Another scheme allows students to represent members of the community at welfare benefit tribunals, which gives back to the community whilst providing valuable experience.
Impact of COVID-19
Most of the student teaching over the past year has been online. There have been various challenges, particularly in terms of teaching dynamics; students don’t always want to keep their cameras on, and lecturers are not always able to judge whether students fully comprehend the online lessons. Nevertheless, tools such as Zoom and Teams have helped to maintain the development of practical skills such as negotiation. Students have even been able to take part in national mooting competitions being run virtually.
After Ria Hill’s presentation, the discussion between participants highlighted the significant value that legal advice centres can offer law courses, by helping to provide students with actual experience of working with clients and equipping with the skills they will need in practice.
Law teachers also talked about the importance of bringing in more ‘soft skills’ into their teaching, such as negotiating and adaptability – particularly the confidence to accept failure – which would stand their students in good stead in the workplace. Tenacity and initiative seemed to be the top-rated skills, with the emphasis that students needed to learn these as part of the curriculum, without necessarily being conscious that they were acquiring these skills.
Adam Curphey, Innovation Engagement Manager at Reed Smith, provided the employer’s perspective in this segment of the forum, highlighting the importance of a more client-centric approach for prospective lawyers.
O Shaped Lawyer
Adam spoke about the O Shaped Lawyer Programme. The programme aims to create more rounded (O-shaped) lawyers through a framework of five behaviours and mindsets: Optimism; Ownership; Open minded; Opportunistic; and Original.
Other values encouraged by the programme include emotional intelligence, adaptability and curiosity.
What clients want
It is vital that lawyers are meeting the needs of their clients. Modern lawyering is not just about legal knowledge. Broader business skills are becoming increasingly valued attributes of legal counsel. Some of the skills clients want to see from their lawyers include:
In general, law firms are becoming increasingly similar to other types of businesses. So, lawyers of the future who possess these crucial business skills will be at an advantage.
Modern legal training
As business skills and other ‘soft skills’ become increasingly valued amongst lawyers, it’s important to incorporate this type of training into university education. At Reed Smith, trainees are placed into other departments of the firm, e.g. Business Development, Marketing or Innovation departments; this helps to teach them how a law firm runs as a business.
Marie-Gabrielle Williams, Paralegal, LexisPSL Hub at LexisNexis, also shared her experience since graduating in law a few years ago. Some of her key observations and tips included:
Lauren Crisp, Customer Success Manager at LexisNexis, provided a breakdown of some of the tools available to help provide skills and training for law students. A few examples include:
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