Low-skilled lawyers prompt calls for law degree reform

South Africa’s law degree faces a shake-up in a bid to more adequately equip the country's young lawyers for the demands of the working world. The profession’s weighty bodies are behind a push to reform the qualification countrywide.

In a joint statement the South Africa Law Deans' Association (SALDA), the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) and the General Council of the Bar (GCB) stated their consensus on changing the current four-year undergraduate LLB degree to a five-year qualification.

They also called on the Council on Higher Education to conclude a standard-setting process for the degree by 30 June next year.

This would be conducted via wide consultation with the LLB Summit Steering Committee, a body representing stakeholders who attended a summit on the LLB degree held in Gauteng province at the end of May.

The standard-setting approach would take into account resources and requirements of the workplace, as well as the required attributes for graduates, including: knowledge of substantive law; generic skills covering language, literacy, numeracy, research, analysis and information technology; ethics; and a commitment to social justice.

Law education already reformed

South Africa changed its LLB degree from a postgraduate qualification to a four-year undergraduate degree in 1998. Under the previous system, lawyers trained for either five or six years towards their qualification, depending on the credits taken in their undergraduate degree.

The rationale behind that change was to make legal education more accessible. But University of Cape Town law dean Professor Pamela Schwikkard told The Times newspaper last year that it was not at all clear whether the four-year degree had achieved this goal.

She estimated that only 20% of students enrolling for the four-year degree completed it within the required timeframe, and added that those students had the least amount of time to develop literacy, numeracy and life skills and were thus "less sought after than the privileged few who embark on the LLB as a second undergraduate degree".

The proposal for extending the current studies stated that adequate funding of university law clinics should also be canvassed. The clinics would enable law students to integrate their knowledge with practice by gaining practical experience while providing much-needed legal services to indigent members of society.

Law society spokesperson Barbara Whittle said a national task team would be established to monitor the process and facilitate ongoing liaison between university law faculties and the profession.

This team would include representatives from SALDA, the LSSA, GCB, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Department of Higher Education and Training and the Society of Law Teachers of Southern Africa.

The law society and the law deans’ association would assume responsibility for convening the task team before the end of August.

Graduates under-performing

This is not the first time the profession has called for changes to the current LLB degree structure. In July last year Nic Swart, LSSA director of legal education, told the South African Press Association that the society wanted the degree redesigned as a postgraduate qualification after complaints that "some law graduates cannot read, count or reason".

The society thus wanted the LLB shifted into a five-year postgraduate qualification, with Swart commenting that lawyers were encountering students having problems with analysis and critical thinking.

A survey conducted by financial services provider PPS and released in October last year showed that South African legal practitioners were no longer confident that LLB graduates were aptly equipped to enter the profession.

The survey revealed a 10 percentage point drop to 21% among 500 attorneys surveyed on whether they believed the current LLB degree sufficiently prepared prospective practitioners to enter the profession and succeed.

The survey had focused on graduate professionals, discussions taking place between several universities and the professional associations representing the profession.

The PPS head of group marketing and stakeholder relations, Gerhard Joubert, said at the time that the survey had coincided with an increase in labour disputes, a high degree of political unrest in South Africa and unease about potential developments at the ruling African National Congress four-yearly conference in December 2012.

However, what had also emerged was a sharp drop in confidence among recipients on whether they would encourage their children to enter the profession – only 40% answered positively, a figure that had dropped four percentage points on the quarter.

The survey also showed a five percentage point drop in confidence level to 72% in the future of the profession over the next five years.

"This is very worrying. Not only is there a shortage of key skills in South Africa, but children often take a lead from their parents' perspectives and if they see the legal profession as a difficult or unrewarding vocation, this does not bode well for attracting new entrants," he said.

Further reflected in that survey was that local attorneys were worried about declining quality in the current LLB degree. "It is vital these concerns are addressed to ensure the future of this vital profession in the country," Joubert said.

Swart said there were notable skills shortages among law graduates, specifically in the fields of literacy, numeracy and computers, and research and analytical skills. These deficiencies could be traced to the school system and one of the solutions would be to place stronger emphasis on academic skills at school level.

However, the University of Cape Town’s Pamela Schwikkard did not believe the LLB curriculum was an issue. The profession had always been responsible for the practical training of law graduates and was still best placed to do so.

"It is extremely difficult for universities and the law profession to train students either in theory or in practice when they do not have the requisite literacy or numeracy skills. Unfortunately, school-leavers very often do not have these skills," she said.

A student view

Maybe the answer to these issues should come from the mouths of babes – those most affected financially by the proposed implementation.

Commenting on the issue on Pierre de Vos's blog,, fourth-year LLB student Eric wrote: “I fully understand what they are trying to achieve with this.

“We are not getting any practical experience, but only excessive amounts of theoretical knowledge. Spreading the course over five years will ensure a more rounded education and in turn, a more rounded and equipped lawyer."