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They are supposed to be meticulous analysts, interpreting legal theories and critically applying the highest level of thinking. In fact, they call each other learned friends, but some of them can neither read, count nor reason.
The quality of law students has triggered an outcry, with academics and legal practitioners contemplating changing the entire law studies system.
Lawyers and some universities want to see the LLB degree redesigned as a post graduate qualification after finding that many law students have problems counting, reading and reasoning – all critical skills in the legal profession.
This week, the Law Society of South Africa took a resolution that it would push for the current four-year degree to be made a five year post graduate qualification, in the hope that the initial non-law years would solve the problem.
Members of the law society, who are from law firms across the country, have expressed concern about the quality of law students who arrive at their firms for vocational training and those who graduate.
The society’s director of legal education, Nic Swart, said the numeracy and literacy problems identified by assessors in vocational programmes were a “substantial problem”.
“We often find the students have problems with analysis and critical thinking. In some cases they can’t analyse facts and some graduates cannot research properly,” Swart said. In some cases, he said, there were problems with knowledge of a particular field of law.
The resolution came hot on the heels of a survey by PPS which found that only 31 percent of the 500 attorneys interviewed believed the current LLB degree prepared students for the legal world.
The survey also showed that only 50 percent of the lawyers surveyed had confidence in the standard of general education improving over the next five years.
However all indications were that the legal profession and law faculties had been pondering this problem – and struggling to find a solution – for several years.
Prior to 1998 the LLB degree was a post-graduate qualification.
“The four-year LLB was introduced in 1998 amid political pressure to reduce costs and get more black students through the ‘system’. However, if these were the considerations, the objectives have not come to fruition, in the sense that we are not necessarily producing more black students in a less costly way,” says SA Law Deans Association president, Professor Vivienne Lawack-Davids, the dean of the Nelson Mandela University Law Faculty.
“Law academics and the profession seem to share the opinion that a postgraduate five-year LLB would be more appropriate, but not necessarily the same as the ‘old’ LLB.”
Lawack-Davids added that there was “anecdotal evidence to suggest that the quality of some of the LLB graduates is declining”.
However the problem runs deeper than the university degree.
“With the state of education in our country, law faculties have found themselves increasingly having to include modules (such as legal skills) to improve the generic skills of students. Some of our faculties now teach new law students how to read, write and comprehend, and how to count,” she said.
“This was not necessary in the previous five-year programme and there was also sufficient time to include more practical modules, despite a very tight curriculum.”
Stellenbosch University Law Faculty dean, Professor Gerhard Lubbe, said the four-year degree should not be “made a scapegoat” for inefficiencies at the basic education level.
“It is a big problem universities are trying to remedy. But it is difficult to address backlogs that might have developed at school,” he said.
Lubbe said law faculties were ironically low funded.
“You need support to get students up to speed. You need courses and tutors and many faculties are unable to do that,” he said.
The deputy dean at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, Pierre de Vos, said there could be cost implications with a five-year degree which universities and the profession would have to consider.
“There is the cost of the actual degree and also the cost of not being able to work for another year,” he said. Some universities, offered a five-year option to the LLB course.