Legal Education System in the UK: An Overview

Saturday, May 2, 2009, 12:29 PM

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Legal Education System in the UK: An Overview


Dr. Abdullah Al Faruque[i]


1. Background

Legal education system of any country depends upon the legal system it follows, national policies with regard to higher education and requirements of the legal profession. UK is no exception in this regard.  Legal education system in UK is based upon the common law system which had been developed through the judicial decisions and customary laws crystallised through the practices and tradition followed over hundreds years. Both in terms of academic quality and professional training, UK legal education system is one of the most developed legal education systems in the contemporary world.

There are three separate legal jurisdictions within the UK - England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. All three are based upon the common law system. The UK is also a member state of the European Union and subject to European law in a number of areas. Therefore, there is a strong European assimilation in UK legal education system. The legal education system of the three jurisdictions differs in respect of both academic and practical aspects. However, the most common aspect is that the legal education systems of the three jurisdictions involve two pre-qualification stages- the Academic stage and the Vocational stage, albeit, each has its own distinctive characteristics. While the academic stage is concerned with the analysis of legal texts, concepts, doctrines and the identification of legal principles, the Vocational stage is more concentrated on skills and competencies that practising lawyers require grounding in substantive law at the academic stage followed by procedural trainings at the vocational stage.

2. The Academic Stage

The Academic stage usually consists of undergraduate and post graduate courses, which are offered by the most of the UK universities. The academic stage involves acquiring of a ‘standard’ law degree (also known as “qualifying law degree”) as opposed to a ‘non-standard’ one. The Bar Council of England and Wales and the Law Society decide which law degrees are Standard for the purpose of the term and they prepare a list to that effect for the benefit of would-be practitioners. Postgraduate degrees do not generally fulfill the criteria of a Standard law degree. And not all undergraduate law degrees are Standard for this purpose, e.g., the undergraduate degree offered by the University of Derby. In order to be designated as a Standard law degree, according to BC/LS regulations, a law degree ‘must’ have complete curriculum on certain ‘foundation’ or ‘core’ law courses. These include- Law of Obligations (contract and tort), Equity-Trusts, Property law, Public law (administrative and constitutional law), criminal law, Evidence, European law etc. These core courses must be based on UK law and not on the law of some overseas jurisdictions- as a result, almost all degrees from overseas universities are ‘non-standard’ for the purpose of BC/LS. There are some postgraduate degrees offered by University of Leeds and few other universities, which exempts its holder from concluding the academic stage- which makes it a de jure standard degree. For instance, two-year LL.M. course offered by the University of Leeds is prominent example of such de jure standard degree. 

2.1 Undergraduate course

The undergraduate law degree is the most common form of entry into the legal profession. The undergraduate course commonly leads to a Bachelor of Laws or a Bachelor of Arts, or joint honours degree. In England, LLB course runs for three years, but in Scotland, it is usually a four year course. The undergraduate courses intend to give general idea about laws, legal system and legal principles to the students. The undergraduate course may include following subjects: property law, labour law, employment law, discrimination law, environmental law, equity and trust, consumer law, competition law, intellectual property law, administrative law, constitutional law, law of contract, law of tort, restitution laws, tax laws, legal philosophy, legal theories, medical/health law, company law, criminal law, international law, conflict of laws, civil law, land law, family law, EU community law, public law, etc.  However, some of these courses must be ‘core’ subjects for the undergraduate course for a degree in order to be a standard one.  

2.2 Post graduate course

The post graduate course aims at acquiring a systematic understanding of knowledge in particular area and intends to provide the students a critical reflection of current problems and new insights, and advanced scholarship in the discipline. Post graduate courses are more directed to specialisation in a particular field. The post graduate course leads to LLM, BCL (Bachelor of Civil Law- a one-year masters programme in law designed for students with common law background-offered by Oxford), MJur (Majister Juris- a one year masters programme in law designed for students with backgrounds other than in common law- offered by University of Oxford), MSt (Master of Studies- a one year postgraduate research programme in law similar to research LLMs-offered by Oxford), MPhil (0ne or two years) or PhD ( called DPhil in Oxford and in a number of other universities) degree. The LL.M. course may be either taught or research based. The most popular LLM programmes are in the areas of international law, human rights, commercial law, trade law, European community law, environmental law etc.

2.3 Mode of study

Both undergraduate and post graduate courses can be studied in full time or part time basis. However, part-time courses are mainly open to home/EU students only and this option is not available to the international students in most instances.

2.4 Distance Learning Programme

Most of the universities offer internal programme. But some institutions offer distance learning or external programme for both undergraduate and post graduate course. External programmes are available in University of London, University of Wolverhampton and some other institutions.    

2.5 Academic session

In most of the UK institutions, academic session starts with September of the calendar year.  But some institutions also have January session.

2.6 Institutions

Legal education is carried out through both universities and colleges. However, unlike Bangladesh and other countries, both universities and colleges maintain fair degree of similarity in terms of duration of course and quality of curriculum. However, sometimes ‘university’ and ‘college’ are used interchangeably and the difference seems to be more semantic than real one in particular when colleges form the unit of university. For example, King’s College, Imperial College, University College of London, College of Law are really part of London University.   

2.7 Curriculum

Legal curriculum is formulated by institutions themselves and with the consultation of relevant professional bodies. Although universities being autonomous institutions are free to determine the syllabus and curriculum of the disciplines including law, the Bar council and Law society exercises considerable influence in formulating legal curriculum in England and Wales. Over the years, the Bar Council and Law Societies have issued a series of joint statement indicating the necessary contents of syllabus for law courses.

Each academic year may be divided either into terms or semester depending upon the system of a university. Each academic year may have three or four term spanning 10 to 12 weeks. On the other hand, each academic year usually has two semesters.  Typically a student would take four full subjects, or 8 half subjects or modules, each year.

Students will also be able to select optional modules or courses dependent upon the alternatives offered by the law School. Jurisprudence or legal theory is an option offered by nearly all law schools. In UK, practice of teaching legal system of other European countries is also widespread. French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese laws and legal systems are also popular options. A small number of law schools teach Roman law.

2.8 Research Components

The UK legal education system highly emphasises on research components as part of undergraduate course. The universities are increasingly attaching value to the learning research skills at both undergraduate and post graduate levels. However, research components figure prominently more in post graduate courses. In postgraduate level, the course may be offered as fully research based or partially research based when the course is taught one.

2.9 Alternative Law Degrees

The alternative law degrees are available for non-law graduates who have first obtained an undergraduate degree in another discipline. It is known as Common Professional Examination (CPE), which is also known as the post graduate diploma in law (PgDL). Usually it spans one year. However, it is offered by a small number of universities. It provides tuition about the core law subjects prescribed by the professions for entry into the Vocational stage. CPE/PgDL is generally aimed at students who have their undergraduate degrees in subjects other than law, e.g., for an economics, politics or science graduate from a UK university who now wants to be trained as a lawyer. Candidates with overseas degrees are not generally eligible to enroll in CPE even with a Master degree from their home country. However, overseas candidates are accepted only after they have obtained their postgraduate course in UK or European Universities. CPE/PgDL provides certificates of completion of the Academic Stage to candidates who wants to get enrolled at the Vocational Stage (i.e., Bar Vocational Course or the Legal Practice Course) in order to be trained as a Barrister or Solicitor.

2.10 Legal skills and Clinical Legal Education Programme

Learning of legal skills and clinical legal education programme are recognised as an established feature of the curriculum. Legal skills include drafting, research, interviewing, negotiation, advocacy, legal analysis and communication. Legal skills learning are incorporated in curriculum either explicitly or implicitly. The explicit incorporation is defined as where the legal skills form a definitive part of a unit of curriculum dedicated to skills. The implicit incorporation refers to the situation where legal skill is delivered to the students as part of an overall educational process. The most of the law schools have explicit incorporation of legal skills in the units of the curriculum.

In many law schools, legal skills are imparted under Clinical legal education programme (CLEP) with a view to providing skills on lawyering process, Alternative Dispute Resolution, the public role of lawyer and professionalism. Clinical legal education programme is increasingly becoming popular in the law schools as a means of delivering practical skills. CLEP have been introduced in some UK law schools with a view to enhancing the students' learning experience and understanding of the substantive law, legal process, ethics and the role of law in society. The clinical programme requires students to address legal skill (drafting, research, advocacy, interviewing and negotiation) and transferable skills (communication, problem solving, team work, organisational and study skills, and the use of new technology). Through clinical legal education programmes, students are exposed to unstructured legal problems arising from real life problems. Clinical legal education is a model where students learn through experience or 'doing' law. Clinical legal education is imparted in two ways: live-client model and simulated. The use of live-client clinical work aims at the exposure of students to learning by doing with real clients. It aims at imparting learning through problem-solving in a real client context. Live-client clinics can take a variety of forms, such as in-house advice centres and representation services, outreach clinics (advice and representation), community based consultancy services, and legal literacy clinics (Street Law).

Simulations based clinical legal education programme refer to learning process through demonstration of cases or parts of cases without real clients and based either on fictitious or real facts, but acted out as if they were real. 

However, the American import of CLEP has still to go a long way to be recognised as a standard curriculum in the UK law schools. Still famous institutions like Oxford, Cambridge and most of the old law schools do not recognise CLEP. Because the main problem with such programme is that it involves live-client interactions against which there are already a number of practice-related laws and regulations in place. There is also the impediment of professional insurance which is in place to ensure professional liability/responsibility of the legal advice given. Furthermore, in the UK, there are regulations- on who can provide legal advice, on who can accept legal briefs, on who can meet the clients directly, on matters of fees and remuneration, on matters of contingency fees and legal aid bills etc- based on which UK’s dichotomous (Barrister/Solicitor) legal profession is built. These are the reasons why law schools in UK are hesitant to adopt this programme wholeheartedly. Also there is a strong academic logic behind this- that the aim of the law degrees in UK is not produce practising lawyers only. Their aim is also to produce legal academics, administrators, consultants, policy makers, politicians, activists, campaigners etc. Therefore, it is not necessary to train everyone in practical legal skills in their undergraduate days since not everyone is going to be a practicing lawyer. For specific practical legal skills, there is always the Vocational Stage of professional training which is already in place to serve the purpose. In short, the issue of CLEP is still fighting its ground in UK and the degree of its implementation differs from one law school to another, depending on their respective teaching philosophies and strategies.     

2.11 Teaching of Legal Ethics

Professional responsibility for lawyers is highly maintained and regulated in the UK. In the UK, professional responsibility is monitored by the professional bodies like the bar and also by the judiciaries. Teaching of legal ethics is one important part of vocational training, but it is also taught in some law schools.  

2.12 Analytical Approach to Legal Education

Analytical approach through analysis of concepts and case materials is most preferred method of study rather than descriptive system that is prevailing in Bangladesh. Also, a critical approach to legal studies is taken by law schools such as Kent, Westminister and Keele –as opposed to the formal position of the law schools in Bangladesh. In the UK law schools, the students are asked to analyse the provisions of the law, statutes, regulation rather than memorising the provisions of law and explain the case materials in the light of given problem of practical importance.   

2.13 Law Teaching

Teaching of Law in the UK universities is influenced by two main factors – needs of legal profession and the government’s higher education policy. Teaching is conducted by lectures, seminar and simulation/role play. Student assessment is carried by exams, course work, oral presentation and continual assessment. Mooting and debates are popular methods of extra-curricular activities in law schools.

2.14 Quality Assessment

The quality of legal education in UK is maintained by the general scheme of quality assurance which is also applicable to the other disciplines.

Currently, there are several institutions and systems in the UK for quality assessment of higher education. The central agency is the Quality Assurance Agency, which oversees comparability and transparency of the university education in the whole UK. The new programme was launched in 2001 by the Agency in order to establish clear and accurate information on the level of training, the character and the outcomes of university education. The Agency sets out benchmarks and standards of awarding degree at the different levels and it has mechanisms to inspect the UK universities. For the quality assurance, the concerned institution is obliged to comply with these benchmarks and standards.  

Research Assessment Exercise, which is popularly known as RAE, is a common method of evaluating research of the UK universities. RAE is concerned about evaluation of output of individual departments of the universities in terms of publications of academic staffs, experiments, and infrastructure facilities and publications of journals and books. RAE is a four yearly process. For assessment of the quality of teaching, there is a separate system which is known as TQA (Teaching Quality Assessment.  

The Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) provides training on teaching for prospective teachers. It offers courses for those who are interested to be employed as a teacher of a University. This is not mandatory but is often considered a plus point in the selection process, particularly for those candidates who do not have any prior teaching experience in the UK universities.   

2.15 Technological Support

In delivering higher education and transmission of knowledge, technological support by internet facilities, intranet, video conferencing, power point presentation is increasingly used in the UK universities. Learning IT skills is now considered as necessary part of legal education.

3. The Vocational Stage of Legal Education

There are two main categories of legal profession in England and Wales- barrister and solicitor. The law students, who wish to practice law, must select one of the two options for profession and apply for entry and complete the vocational stage. The vocational stage places a strong emphasis upon the practical skills that lawyers require. 

3.1 Solicitors

In England and Wales, the Law Society and the professional body representing solicitors requires those who wish to qualify to join a Legal Practice Course. If they successfully pass this, they will have to obtain a Training Contract from a solicitors’ firm, which will provide them two further years training, before a successful law student is finally ‘admitted as a solicitor’ or entered on the Roll of Solicitors.

The Legal Practice Course (LPC) lasts one academic year. The LPC involves the compulsory study of some substantive subjects, accounts, taxation, company law, and professional conduct. The skills of interviewing, drafting, and negotiation are also studied and examined. Upon successfully completing the LPC a Trainee Solicitor enters a firm and continues on the job training for a further two years. This period includes formal training in advocacy. Thereafter all solicitors are obliged to continue compulsory professional development (CPD), which can be achieved by obtaining credit for attending accredited courses, which update legal knowledge or procedure or otherwise inform the practice of law.

In Scotland, diploma in legal practice is offered for students intending to be solicitors and advocates after completion of LLB degree.   

3.2 Barristers

In England and Wales, the General Council of the Bar has franchised a one year programme and examination called Bar Vocational Course (BVC) for those wishing to become barristers. The Bar Vocational Course (BVC) was introduced in 1989 to emphasize the practicing skills required for court work. The course utilizes practical exercises for the competencies in Drafting, Research, Advocacy, Interviewing and Negotiation (DRAIN). Bar vocational course is offered by eight institutions -BPP Law School, Inns of Court, College of Law, Cardiff, School of Law (City University), Manchester Metropolitan University, University of Northumbria, Nottingham Law School (Nottingham Trent University), Bristol Institute of Legal Practice, and the University of the West England. Different institutions have evolved their own programmes and assessment methods. However, performance assessment in the skills areas and multiple choice tests for testing detailed knowledge of procedural rules have been adopted by most, if not all, institutions. In addition to practical skills, substantive courses are also taught on criminal law, common law, and taxation, civil and criminal procedure in Bar vocational Course.

Upon successfully passing the Bar exams, a student can be called to the Bar by her/his Inn of Court. All those wishing to become barristers have to join one of the four Inns of Court (Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple or Lincoln’s Inn), which basically involves paying a membership fee and eating a number of compulsory dinners.  

Call to the Bar however does not entitle automatically a barrister to practice because a barrister must complete a further 12 months ‘pupillage’ in a group of barristers’ offices or chambers of barristers in order to appear in court.

4. Role of Professional Bodies

The Bar council is the governing body for the barristers. The law society is the governing body for solicitors. There is separate law society for Scotland called Scottish Law Society. The function of professional bodies includes issuing guidelines for vocational courses about the necessary qualification of the lawyers and formulating legal curriculum of the law schools.  


Julian Lonbay, University Training: The Implications of the Bologna Declaration for the UK, European Journal of Legal Education, (2001), p. 11-29.

Richard Grimes, Research Reports on Legal Education: Legal Skills and Clinical Legal Education, Web Journal of Current Legal Issues, 1995.

A. Bradney, Ivory Towers or satanic mills: Choices for University Law Schools, 17 Studies in Higher Education, 1992, p. 5.

P. Harris et al, A Survey of Law Teaching Sweet & Maxwell, 1993.

J. Macfarlane, Look before You Leap - Knowledge and Learning in Legal Skills Education, 19 Journal of Law and Society.

N. Tarr, Current Issues in Clinical Legal Education, 37 Howard law Journal, (1993), p. 31.

J. Woolson, A Third Survey of University Legal Education in the United Kingdom, 13 Journal of Legal Studies, (1993), p. 143.


§ Assistant Professor, Department of Law, University of Chittagong. The author is grateful to Rayhan bin Rashid, Dphil candiate at the Oxford University for his valuable comments and information on the draft of this article.