Is an English law school the best place to become a lawyer?

With the training of English lawyers under review, Hannah Langworth asks if the American way is better

The global legal marketplace is dominated by British and American law firms. Take a look at a list of the world's largest law firms by revenue, and you won't meet a firm hailing from anywhere else until you get down to around number 70. Why? Because many international transactions and dispute resolution procedures, even ones which don't involve British or American parties, are governed by English or New York law. These legal systems are perceived to be more thorough and reliable business tools than their competitors, and their use on big deals has become established practice across the globe.

The popularity of these two legal systems worldwide means that it makes enormous sense for students from any jurisdiction interested in a career in international commercial law to become either an English solicitor or a New York attorney. But the two paths to qualification differ radically, and some leading figures in the English legal world have recently suggested that the English training system is not serving the interests of students or English law firms, and should be more closely modelled on that of the US.

Under orders

Is law a suitable subject for undergraduates? In the UK, it's thought to be, but in the US law is only studied at graduate level. At a recent University College London (UCL) panel event on English legal education, Philippe Sands, QC and professor in UCL's law faculty, stated that he believes the purpose of undergraduate education is to allow students to �widen their minds, engage in critical thinking, and learn how the world functions", not to �train young people for professional activities", adding that his own decision to study law as a first degree was �the only regret of my adult life".

Whatever they study at undergraduate level, all potential English lawyers must spend some time at one of the country's professional law schools. These institutions are generally well-regarded, but none have a global academic standing anywhere near that of the top US players, such as the law schools of Harvard or Stanford universities. Professor Richard Moorhead of Cardiff Law School, another speaker at the event, commented: �The reputation of our firms is based in part on the reputation of our universities. To be able to compete against New York firms, it's vital that our universities are as strong as they can be." He argued that it's essential that law schools offer rigorous and exciting curriculums, and that law schools should initiate more flagship research initiatives of the calibre of those undertaken by US law schools, giving Harvard's Negotiation Project, which aims to improve conflict resolution worldwide, as an example.

Practice makes perfect?

Once US students graduate from law school, they are generally able to practice as qualified lawyers immediately, in contrast to English law school graduates who must spend a further two years training on the job at a law firm. Stephen Mayson of the College of Law, also speaking at the event, argued that the English training contract system, �the longest in the western world", was a �barrier to legal practice" which would �allow the New Yorkers to dominate" - the lag between graduation and qualification may be leading the best law students from around the world to opt to study to become US-qualified rather than English lawyers, thereby potentially weakening the global influence of English law. David Bickerton, Managing Partner of Clifford Chance and another speaker at the event added that he saw the English legal system as in global �mortal combat" with New York law, �particularly in Asia".

The existing English legal education system was defended by some at the event. The academic reputation worldwide of law faculties at British universities was trumpeted, and many felt that an undergraduate law degree could be as enriching a course of study as any. The issue of fees was also raised - legal education in the UK is expensive but nothing like as costly as four years of law school in the US, especially for many of those heading to City firms who have their law school fees paid in full in advance and receive maintenance bursaries.

The way in which English lawyers are trained is being reevaluated at the moment. The Review 2020 project, launched in May 2010 as a joint project by the bodies regulating solicitors, barristers and legal executives, aims to consider legal training in the context of the what the future might hold for the profession. The review committee is due to report back by the end of 2012.

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