Brave New World (The Star)
29 May 2008
"All the players in the legal profession must work together to come up with a well thought-out and reasoned solution to ensure our lawyers are of the best possible quality."
There is a Dilbert cartoon in which the pointy-haired boss accuses a worker of all sorts of shortcomings. Then he ends his tirade by saying that she is also unable to take criticism.
This naturally puts the poor employee in a difficult position. She wants to defend herself but if she did so, she would confirm her boss’ analysis.
I feel like that hapless employee after reading Justice Gopal Sri Ram’s tirade against local law graduates. I am a lecturer in a local university and if I were to support my school, I would look defensive.
Yet, I can’t just let this go by. So allow me to try to address the criticism as objectively as possible.
If the reporting was accurate, the judge was pretty vicious. But then, one does not expect anything less from the judiciary’s bulldog (I use the term “bulldog” as a metaphor for tenacious toughness; no canine contempt intended).
His Lordship’s main criticism, as I see it, is that our graduates are not prepared for the real world of practice. There is more than a grain of truth in that statement. However, before we start to gun down local universities, let us understand just what it is universities are supposed to and not supposed to do.
Universities are academic institutions and, as such, we provide academic training. We are not really vocational schools that provide the sort of practical training the judge is calling for.
Having said that, there is a slight case of schizophrenia on our part. The law courses in Malaysia last four years, and the final year is a sort of “professional” year in which you study the more practice-oriented subjects, like procedure and professional practice.
Yet, at the same time, the “academic” ethos is still part of the package so perhaps we are not as practice-oriented as we could be.
In Britain, this problem does not exist because the academic and the vocational training aspects are quite distinct. You do three years of undergraduate study and if you pass, you get your LLB. Then the vocational training is provided for when you take the course for either the bar exams or the solicitors’ exams.
The universities are thus left with ensuring academic quality and the Bar and solicitor schools deal with the practical aspects of the profession.
Now, if we are to improve matters and make our graduates more prepared for practice, there are three options that I can see.
The first is to make the entire course less academic and more practical. I can’t agree with this. The Bachelor of Laws degree (the LLB) is not merely to train practising lawyers. It is about the teaching of the law and the appreciation of the law.
It is about the training of the mind, to think and to analyse in a particular way. I believe there is value in that.
Another alternative is to make just the final year much more practical. This is a tempting possibility and one that could succeed with the necessary consultations and with the proper funding and staffing.
The final possibility is the one that is being put forward by the Government now, and that is to have a common Bar exam with its own syllabus. This proposal has yet to take solid form so we don’t know what it will entail.
In principle, I see no problem with a common Bar exam. My concern is one of trust. The closest equivalent we have had to a common Bar exam is the Certificate of Legal Practice (CLP) exam that foreign or external degree graduates without a Bar or solicitors’ qualification have to sit for.
The CLP is not without its problems. There are far too many scandals associated with it and far too many serious criticisms aimed at it.
There are many weaknesses in our law schools, let me be the first to admit to that. However, any problems that we have and any attempts at improving them are in our hands.
Despite our problems, at the very least, I know that a student passes on his or her merit. Exam scripts are sent to external assessors comprising both local and foreign academics and practitioners to ensure fairness and quality.
And in my 18 years of teaching, there has never been a whiff of any monkeying around with quotas and other such suspicions that are, perhaps unfairly, thrown at the CLP.
The CLP experience leaves me concerned. Therefore, until and unless I am convinced of the soundness of the common Bar exam, I am inclined towards improving matters by fixing the existing system in local universities.
It is easy for industry to place the blame for everything on universities.
“Your graduates can’t speak English,” they say. To which my answer is “Yes, that’s right, they came to us speaking like blinking Richard Attenborough and after four years under our tutelage, we destroyed all their language skills”.
And to come back to the main criticism levelled at us: “Your graduates don’t know anything about practice”.
OK, sure, like I said earlier, there is some truth in that. However, the responsibility does not lie with us alone. Surely, a lot of the aspects of practice are to be taught in the nine-month chambering period.
This is the time spent by a law graduate in a law firm learning the ropes before they can be called to the Bar. Why is there no barrage of attack on that aspect of a law graduate’s training?
There is a lot that local universities can do to improve things and we must accept criticisms in the right spirit. But this must be a collaborative effort. All the players in the legal profession must work together to come up with a well-thought-out and reasoned solution in ensuring that our lawyers are of the best possible quality.
And we must do this as rationally and as inclusively as possible, even with bulldogs nipping at our heels.