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Vocational Over Academic Excellence: How Legal Education Is Misunderstood In Pakistan - Nida Usman Chaudhary
  • Posted On: 05 Jul 2022

Vocational Over Academic Excellence: How Legal Education Is Misunderstood In Pakistan

The idea of academic qualification in law has been conflated with vocational training in legal practice. In fact, these are two separate streams and require a different lens. Unless this is corrected, academic processes and outputs will continue to be undermined.

In Pakistan, you will often hear lawyers proclaim that law is a ‘professional degree’ and it is with the same narrow and largely incorrect lens that they approach the realm of legal education. As a result, this sense of ‘professional dominance’, the stream of academia has largely remained undermined and underutilised as far as any legal or policy matters are concerned, pertaining to legal education — its role, purpose, future and advancement in Pakistan.

It appears the idea of academic qualification in law has been conflated with the concept of vocational training in legal practice when, in fact, these are two separate streams and require a different lens, response and regulation from the authorities. A singular structure that looks at academic degrees from the lens of vocational training is like expecting a fish to climb a tree. Until the lens is corrected, academic processes and outputs will continue to be demonised and undermined.

Let’s put this is some context. In Pakistan there is a general disdain towards fields of research and academia. But in the legal field even more so, where academics are not even counted as members of the fraternity, and they usually work in silos and echo chambers. The profession and policy leaders within the profession almost never try to benefit from research, analysis and comparative work put in by researchers. Members of the academia often have no stakes in these domains, where ‘active legal practice’ dominates as a criterion for advancement in law, such as being considered for appointment as a judge.

So, the point is that when members from such a fraternity are called upon to deliberate on “improving legal education” it is no surprise that they gauge it from the same lens of vocational superiority over academic excellence.

Let me begin by explaining that a bachelor’s degree obtained upon graduation in any discipline is always an academic degree, and is supposed to build the theoretical foundations and basic academic skills, such as critical analysis, research and reasoning. It is not to be confused with professional or vocational training, which is usually offered separately as a year-long course followed by a professional examination as an entry point into the professional career stream, for example, the Bar at Law Programme in UK.

In most countries, the bodies regulating the legal profession require students to sit for their own bar exams in order to qualify for the license to practice in their states, such as the New York Bar Exam. These professional courses and examinations, that serve as an entry into the professional practice, are taken in addition to the undergraduate degree in law, the LL.B degree and the role and purpose of these programmes is different from the nature of the academic degree that LL.B is. The LL.B degree, as the basic foundational academic degree, sets a student up for pursuing further studies or specialisation in the field of law. It provides a base for students to choose whether they wish to proceed to the academic route and enroll in a Masters and thereafter a Doctorate programme, or whether they wish to change their course from academia to practice and would prefer to undergo the vocational training to be ‘profession ready’ for a career in active legal practice by choosing to prepare and sit for the Bar exam.

In Pakistan, although, the regulatory body has introduced and enforced a professional entry exam in shape of Law Gat and another one for equivalence of those who have obtained a foreign LL.B degree, called the SEE Law. They have however failed to develop an effective official professional course that caters to the vocational training needs of students and the profession. Instead, they have sought to control the academic stream by regulating the academic programmes in law and in schools, colleges and universities offering these degrees, which are likely to be outside their scope of expertise — since they are practitioners and not academics or educationists.

The two judgements of the Supreme Court on the issue of improving standards of legal education bring out the misunderstanding towards the role of LL.B among the authorities. For instance, the Supreme Court observed in their decision (on Const. P. No. 134/2012) that lack of training and interest of senior advocates was leading to a loss in learning of new entrants. This focus on training by senior advocates shows that they are viewing the role of education as one that caters only to a graduate’s eventual success as a litigator and do not fathom the plethora of fields in legal research and other non-traditional careers in law — for which senior advocate may not always be the more appropriate teacher.

They further state that the Bar as an institution has an important role in improving the quality of legal education, without appreciating that legal academic education may be different from vocational skills more suited for the Bar. In that sense, the Bar’s role should be to structure the Bar examination and its preparation, course and curriculum, as is the case in other countries. Purely academic matters related to the LL.B degree might benefit more from expertise and experience of academics in research, teaching and/or managing educational institutions or programmes. A large number of such professionals include women, but their voices and expertise have been largely missing from decisions on legal education over the years.

The desire to reform the curriculum and infuse in it a multidisciplinary approach by introducing vocational elements such as ‘clinical legal education, mooting, mock trials, client interviewing, negotiation and mediation to provide students with an insight into the practical requirements of law practice’ appears to expect an academic degree to produce an outcome suited for a vocational course. But this was actually used as a basis to eliminate a three-year LL.B degree programmes and replace it with a five-year programme, to build a base in multidisciplinary fields. This obviously led to an anomaly — because the external degree programme continued to be of a three-year duration, providing an edge to students enrolled in those programmes over their local counterparts.

A multidisciplinary education along with practical skills training might not be a bad idea and may even be important. But an attempt to achieve all types of outcomes from the same degree programme was made through the Supreme Court without understanding that globally the professional bar vocational course starts after the initial academic degree has been acquired. This academic degree is usually a taught programme covering theory and questions of academic nature as opposed to practical skills and exposure. Even if legal clinics and mooting etc. are offered, they are not a major component of the degree — because it is expected that it comes in the domain of vocational training imparted after academic qualification, as support or co-curricular activities to provide additional opportunity to students interested in pursuing practice later on. However, since not all graduates pursue litigation, the academic qualification prepares for a career in academia and sets up students for advanced research and writing, independent coursework as well as wide reading of legal scholarship to meet eligibility for advanced academic degrees, like the LL.M, SJD and PHDs.

At the same time, evening classes were viewed negatively by the Bench and Bar as contributing to lowering the standards of education. While compliance with a code of conduct or basic standards of education being delivered in a college or university is not per se a problem and might even be a necessary way to improve the standards of law colleges and schools, it certainly was not enough to improve the standards of legal education for which a more substantial progress in the curriculum, quality of content in textbooks, research culture and effective examinations testing skills and analytical abilities is required. For this reason, evening programmes are not problematic and in fact may even enhance access to education for those who may have day jobs and need those jobs to support their homes and education.

Thus, the lens through which the Bar Council and the Honorable Supreme Court has approached legal education needs an immediate change. What is more important to realize is that it is not the business of the courts to determine questions of policy related to legal education. All questions of policy should be addressed in more participatory and democratic spaces. Regrettably, the Pakistan Bar Council chose to take a more assertive route via the courts. This was not an issue of enforcement of fundamental rights that Article 184 (3) was resorted to, in fact this was a question of policy — and should have remained in that space.

The Writer is a Diversity and Inclusion Advocate. 

Originally published on NayaDaur/TheFriday Times on June 27, 2022