A+ or F- for the LLB?

May 1st, 2013

By Kim Hawkey – editor

One of the issues highlighted during the recent public hearings on the Legal Practice Bill (B20 of 2012) was the standard of quality in the legal profession, which is intrinsically tied to the current debate on the value of the LLB degree.

One of the oft-quoted views expressed during the oral submissions to the Justice Portfolio Committee on the Bill was by former General Council of the Bar deputy chairperson Izak Smuts, who said:

‘In our country … you can get a law degree for toffee. There is a massive overproduction of under-skilled people and, regrettably, … there is any number of legal graduates who ought to be excluded from practice because, if you look at what Deputy Judge President Mojapelo says, they offer a disservice rather than a service to their clients.’

Mr Smuts was referring to an extract of a speech by Deputy Judge President of the South Gauteng High Court, Judge Phineas Mojapelo, published in the December 2012 issue of De Rebus (2012 (Dec) DR 56).

Judge Mojapelo, an initial proponent of shortening the length of the LLB degree, conceded that the result was a failure and it was time to revert to a postgraduate LLB with initial non-legal courses.

In our letters section this month, Nic Swart, chief executive officer of the Law Society of South Africa and director of its Legal Education and Development division, notes that ‘[t]here is widespread concern about the LLB and the skills demonstrated by law graduates’.

I too have previously written about the quality of the LLB in this column and the topic has featured on many pages of this journal before. This concern is shared by many others, which has triggered a national summit on the degree to be held later this month to discuss its future. The summit, titled ‘LLB summit: Legal education in crisis?’, will focus on problems around the LLB curriculum, quality assurance, new models for legal education and community service. Its aim is to ensure that adequately prepared law graduates move from law faculties into the legal profession.

Increasing accessibility to the legal profession is another of the Legal Practice Bill’s aims; however, all stakeholders seem to be clear that this cannot happen at the expense of quality. There has also been an acknowledgment that the four-year degree has not achieved its aim of opening access to the profession – a recent joint statement announcing the summit states that students from privileged backgrounds often chose to do the LLB as a second degree, ‘the value of the first degree in developing generic skills making them the group more favoured by employers’ (see 2013 (Mar) DR 12).

In his letter, Mr Swart identifies some of the problems associated with the quality of the LLB, including that, for various reasons, many have not enjoyed equal training and professional development opportunities at academic and practice levels. Many could not obtain access to more advanced development (and many are still having difficulty in doing so). Several education providers are seriously lacking resources, he adds.

In another letter published in this issue, an attorney writes that it is not the LLB per se that is problematic – the real issue is that universities ‘allow anyone to study’. Therefore, there are more law graduates than jobs available in the market, he says. The solution, he adds, is that the pass mark for matric should be raised and people should only be allowed to study law if they obtain a certain average in matric, and the LLB should only be attempted after completing another degree. Further, the solution to producing competent attorneys is to ensure they receive proper training while completing articles, he says.

These two letters highlight the importance of considering legal education holistically, with both pre- and post-LLB training playing a significant role in developing a competent attorney. The problems in the school education system are well known, while recent pages in De Rebus have revealed less than ideal training experiences of candidate attorneys, some of whom claim they are obstructed from attending the compulsory practical legal training lectures (see 2013 (Mar) DR 4).

While the inadequacies with the LLB have been identified and debated for a number of years, the profession cannot afford to delay implementing the necessary changes to rectify the situation – the consequences are dire, as highlighted by Judge Mojapelo and others.

Poor quality legal education leads to poor quality justice and will, in turn, lead to a weakened justice system.

It is therefore hoped that the summit results in a firm, clear plan for the way forward so that the shortcomings of the degree are addressed swiftly.

Practitioners play a crucial role in attaining justice for clients, the public in general, as well as society as a whole. In a recent judgment, the Supreme Court of Appeal, for example, acknowledged that the legal profession could be distinguished from other professions in the sense that ‘the legal profession and its institutions have traditionally been regarded as integrally related to the administration of justice’ (see p 10).

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2013 (May) DR 3.