As of 2015 Wits will offer only a post-graduate LLB degree – a long-debated and welcome move, writes Prof Vinod Jaichand.
The decision of the University of the Witwatersrand this week to discontinue the undergraduate four-year LLB degree and to offer only the postgraduate LLB from next year has been acclaimed in many quarters – by heads of other law schools, academics, the profession itself and a number of students both current and past.
But this issue is not a recent preoccupation of those in legal education and has been grappled with since 1997.
At the outset I must point out that all students currently enrolled in the four-year undergraduate LLB programme at Wits will be permitted to complete their degrees with no additional requirements.
So this decision will not affect their academic path.
Since its introduction, there had been much criticism of the four-year undergraduate LLB course, Judge LO Bosielo recalled at an LLB summit titled “Legal education in crisis” in May.
And the School of Law confirmed this.
Many pointed to the lack of maturity or awareness of graduates who were being given stewardship of complex cases of their clients.
Some firms of attorneys, who regularly recruit Wits’s four-year undergraduate LLB students, employ them on the proviso that they complete additional academic qualifications such as a Master of Laws (LLM) degree at the expense of such firms.
It is important to note that most LLM degrees do not provide additional skills for practice but are academic degrees.
They are certainly not required for admission to practise law. So why are the firms willing to invest in the further education of the newly recruited employees who have the qualifications to practise?
The answer has been predictably the same: to provide them with some life skills.
Much concern has been expressed by the law schools/faculties about their role, which they believe to be to expand the minds of their graduates and not to provide mere training for legal technicians.
After all, people who went to university are expected “to read for a degree”, an expression that has fallen into disuse but which continues to be highly relevant.
At the same time, since 1997 there has been pressure for a legal skills-driven approach to be followed in the four-year undergraduate LLB.
Law schools have responded by undertaking both, often succeeding in one aspect and attending to the other partially.
Added to this has been the fact that the South African basic education system continues to produce students who are under-prepared for university education.
They are taught how to pass an examination – an expectation that infiltrates their stay at university.
Anything that requires deep reflection is regarded as time-consuming and is often dismissed as costly by the student and as an obstacle to their acquiring a degree.
That is tantamount to the acquisition of a degree without the education.
That is short-sighted.
Another rationale for the Wits strategy is that a prior degree would have prepared a prospective law student about the expectations of university education with some level of literacy, numeracy and exposure to the wider issues in South Africa and beyond that are material in their understanding of law.
A law student should be debating the current affairs prevailing in society and should be capable of being an active citizen.
A law graduate should have empathy for the social issues of our communities, one of which is the unrepresented person in our courts.
A law graduate should dedicate some time to pro bono work.
It is no coincidence that the liberation of South Africa was led by such socially conscious lawyers as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
Where are the public interest lawyers of this generation?
Currently our country provides numerous opportunities for people with mettle and imagination to take up leadership positions.
The study of law should not be directed only at a possible legal practitioner.
That would be a narrow view.
Many law graduates can be found in allied areas such as in civil society, business, international relations, international organisations, corporations and academe.
New challenging fields such as information technology law and space law cannot be accessed with only a narrow practitioner view.
The possibility of a BSc with a postgraduate LLB would open up new types of future legal practice, for example.
However, a narrow view typecasts all legal practitioners in the stereotypical law firm attending to regular fee-paying work.
The proposed postgraduate LLB degree at the Wits School of Law will include a course in ethics that is essential for all lawyers.
One might argue that this is also a course necessary for addressing many national issues like corruption; the justification for such acts is that everybody is doing it.
The course will provide them with some tools to navigate complex moral questions – tools that every lawyer needs to have for practice.
The course in ethics was the subject of engagement at a recent workshop run by the Law Society of South Africa where it was agreed that it was essential learning for all lawyers.
In addition, Legal Research and Writing will be integrated into the postgraduate LLB curriculum because it is such an essential part of practice. On more than one occasion judges have drawn my attention to the poor writing skills of law graduates.
Finally I need to address the question of whether the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Law has pre-empted any current initiatives on reform of the LLB degree.
It is nearly a year since the “Legal Education in Crisis” conference and little progress has been reported. There are many ongoing discussions on legal education and it will be some time before reform takes place.
A non-law analogy – but a current, relevant one nonetheless – is how inured we are to poor municipal and provincial financial management.
Each year they squander millions of rand in wasted expenditure.
Yet the following year we hope for a better result, only to be disappointed again by the auditor-general’s report.
We know the undergraduate LLB is not fit for purpose, but we wait for a better result.
One aspect is apparent: The Wits School of Law cannot continue on this path each year hoping for a different outcome – or be a bystander to an obvious inconsistency because, for our students’ sake, it is too high a price to pay.