Law schools are in need of major reform

Patrick Kadima
Patrick Kadima

William Pollard a physicist and an Episcopal priest once said the following: “To change is difficult. Not to change is fatal.”

Change is the most difficult process a juristic person or natural person can go through and most of the time institutions and humans alike reject change in any form for many reasons.

One of the reasons is that change brings uncertainty and takes one away from the comfort zone. If institutions and humans refuse to change in the backdrop of world where times and conditions change the ultimate result is that they are left behind. One such example is South Africa's law schools.

The way legal education has been designed and is being delivered to students is very problematic. I will discuss two aspects for now: curriculum reform and law school cultures.

Curriculum reform

Law school pedagogy is chronologically misplaced. Just “knowing the law” no longer cuts it for lawyers. Yes one may argue that one needs to know at least basic legal principles but currently at law schools just knowing the law is enough. Rather, let me say, “cramming the law” is enough.

One enters the exam room, delivers an answer as it is outlined in the textbook and passes; this surely cannot be said that a student has learnt what a particular segment of the law is.

Currently if you ask most of my colleagues to write an opinion or critique, for example on whether a certain remedy granted by a court for an infringement on a certain right was the right decision by the court, it will be a difficult thing to do for most of them. A difficult thing, because what most academics do most of the time is teach the principles of law without allowing students to critique or give their opinions on whether the principle was right.

On the other hand if you ask them what remedy a court ordered in a particular case, they will be able to answer because what is taught is how to memorise principles and “vomit” them back, but not understand the legal principles.

Law schools should not be in the business of creating robots but creating thinkers. Teaching should consist of relevant issues and not superfluous materials.

A legal skills course needs to be designed. This should be a stand-alone course where students will be taught how to write as future lawyers and academics, and not something taught in a module for one week. Methods of assessment need to change at law schools as well. In essence law education should move away from rote memorisation towards a more practical and experiential method.

Law school cultures

Go to any law school in the country especially the “top” ones and ask any law student what is the definition of a successful law graduate.

I promise you that most of them will tell you that its landing a job at one of the country’s top four law firms or an international law firm, all located in Sandton.

Surely, this cannot be a true definition of a successful law graduate. Law schools need to stop fetishising to its students that corporate law is the only success ladder a law graduate should climb.

For many top law schools, their career day is filled with corporate law firms and maybe one or two public interest law organisations to cover up their obsession with corporates.

A law school’s success should not be based on how much they throw into the corporate legal sector but should be measured on how many graduates of theirs are entering the law field.

There is a lot of evidence out there of legal practitioners who have never set foot in a corporate firm but are now judges and well known legal practitioners.

Let me not be misunderstood. It’s great working for a corporate firm but law schools should be cautioned against preaching to its students that corporate law firms are the only success ladder in this noble profession.

Many deans have not put too much effort into reforming their law schools and one of the reasons is the resistance that they will face from their colleagues or different stakeholders. This should not be the case.

Transformation of the legal sector has been the talk of late and this undoubtedly begins at law schools.

If law schools do not change now, that window period of change will not be opened for long and once it closes the result of this resistance to change is obvious – it would be fatal for the profession.

Patrick Kadima, is a BA graduate (university of Stellenbosch). He is currently pursuing a graduate LLB at Wits. He is the former secretary-general of the students for law and social justice (Wits chapter). He is an incumbent member of the law student council and acting chairperson of the Black Lawyers Association (Wits Student Chapter). He writes in his personal capacity.

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