King’s College London: Ensuring Law degrees remain relevant 

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Chris Howard, our University Partnerships Director, caught up with Michael Butler, Senior Lecturer in Law and the Director of the Professional Law Institute at King’s College London, about challenging the status quo, providing for the SQE, careers-focused education in a research-based institution, and the future of legal education.

Chris Howard: Michael, thanks very much for taking the time to have a chat with me today. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became the director of the Professional Law Institute (PLI)?

Michael Butler: Hi Chris. Thanks very much for the opportunity to speak with you today. My background is as a practising lawyer. I was a partner in an international law firm called Squire Patton Boggs, and I then became a general counsel for the first alternative business structure backed by private equity in the world. 

In 2015 I found myself at a career-change point: What did I really want to do? I wanted to go teach law. So I went and got some experience at the University of Law, and then a couple of years ago, an opportunity came up to join King’s where there was a brand-new innovative degree called the MSc Law & Professional Practice, and I thought I’ve got to grab it and go for it. And as circumstances would have it, I’ve now assumed the role of heading up this Institute. 

Perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about the Institute, what it does and why it was set up? 

So King’s, as a research-backed, famous institution and a well-known law school internationally, had quite a visionary Executive Dean at the time, Professor Alex Türk, who decided that because of the introduction of the SQE, and wider changes in legal practice, there was an opportunity to reappraise King’s offering to the market. 

They didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water and go down a whole vocational route. They thought, why don’t we set up a separate institute which can offer this type of vocational training. But at the same time, we’re within the rubric of a research-based institution, the best of both worlds. 

So they set up this institute, the PLI, which is a hub of people like myself with deep practice skills and teaching skills as opposed to research skills. And they then decided to launch its premier degree, a Master of Science (to differentiate it from an LLM), which is a two-year degree – the first year of which is akin to a conversion course, the second year with deep elements of practice in it. 

What was the approach to SQE readiness that King’s took when setting up the programme? 

The thinking was very much let’s have a partnering relationship with an expert in SQE preparation. That wasn’t a decision I was involved it, as it was before my time, but when I look back, it was one of the best decisions the programme made. You’ve got to acknowledge where your strengths and weaknesses lie and as a traditional academic institution, the concept of having to do rigorous single-best-answer, multi-choice questions isn’t really within the skillset. So it was much better to effectively partner with BARBRI to provide that element. 

However, it’s a bit more symbiotic than that because we wanted to make sure we were covering as much of the foundational legal knowledge as possible so that it leads seamlessly into SQE from a knowledge point of view, not so much from a doing MCQs point of view. So we map on where we’re doing SQE, but there are always going to be tensions there. We’ll make decisions when we think it’s good for our students or not good for our students. 

I’ll give you an example: I teach Company Law. As you know, SQE covers both individual and corporation tax as part of FLK (functional legal knowledge). We’ve decided this year to remove that from year one because it was, quite frankly, too much for the students who were already having to study the full range of Company Law in one module.

So we’ll cover a lot of FLK but we reserve the right from a pedagogical point of view just to give students some space. And I’m very relaxed because of the rigour of BARBRI’s system. And I’ve also come to understand that when you’re doing multiple choice questions, there is a methodology. And BARBRI teaches you that in a systematic way to get through SQE1. We do have MCQs in some of our courses as a small element. But increasingly we’re thinking we are not the experts in this area in terms of the methodology of how you pass those questions. 

Let’s turn it to the MSc itself, then. What’s your pedagogy? How do you prepare students for practice and what are some of the key features of the MSc programme? 

So on the MSc, what we’ve done is we’ve taken a problem-based learning (PBL) approach and adapted it. As a specific methodology, you and other academics will be familiar with PBL at the University of York – and we actually had Steven Levett come in and talk to us and explain to us how they do problem-based learning there. 

So we’ve taken the essence of that, but we’ve made it more bespoke and said, look, these students are on quite an intense course, particularly in the first year, so we need to scaffold the PBL. It’s a bit different if you’re doing PBL across three years, so for us who do it over two years, we scaffold it in always making sure that the topic you’re covering is quite clear. It’s not covering multiple sorts of subject areas, multiple modules, and we try to refine that topic and give more assistance. That’s the first thing. 

The second thing we’ve found through experience is that PBL is quite a lot of work for students, because they have to do meetings in-between classes. So in some modules, for example Constitutional and Administrative Law, we’ve softened it and just taken away PBL, and we also give tutors the ability to flex. So not PBL all the time. That’s that mix of what you might call PBL and rigorous critical thinking. 

And what’s the blend of subjects and competencies that you’ve looked at in your programme? 

Yeah, that’s a really interesting one, isn’t it. Bear in mind I’m new in post here and I have views on this – but we’re still doing the seven foundation subjects in year one. And that is because of the Bar mandate. Plus we have Business Organisations, which is effectively Company Law. I think we need to review that, but we’re just finding our way there and it still seems to be market practice. 

In year two, in the first term we do practice subjects, so Litigation, Real Estate and Business Practice. And then we have electives. That’s pretty cool because from 2024/2025 we will offer a Psychology elective, and we already have a Strategy elective which I’m teaching, and then a range of some other elective subjects taught by practitioners. So we have an ex big law partner teaching our M&A [mergers & acquisitions] course. We are also offering a clinical module, so there’s a good range and we’ll continue to build out. 

I think one key debate we need is why we’re insistent on these particular seven foundation subjects. What is the essence? Why is it so important? When you look at the Bar requirements here, they’re pretty unprescriptive other than to list the seven foundation subjects. Could we introduce more pathways – even in year one? I also teach on the LLM at King’s and teach Information Law, so I feel why are we not teaching about the rules of data, for example? 

That’s really interesting. I think one of the strengths of BARBRI in terms of academic partnerships is that we offer the opportunity for curricula to be freed up from having to teach to a very prescribed set of core subjects, as you said. Certainly for the solicitor pathway, we cover all of that core material in the BARBRI programme and it’s therefore our university partners can then specialise in where their particular strengths lie. 

To that point, Chris, I feel increasingly that it does free us up and I have real confidence in BARBRI – the rigour of their SQE1 course, the platform, the whole way that’s done. So, yeah, I totally agree with you. 

The other problem we’ve seen is that if you want to do the whole of functioning legal knowledge (FLK), it is beyond the seven foundation subjects anyway. In FLK, you have things like Litigation – now that’s not a foundation subject, but to me that’s really important to teach. So even saying we must do the seven foundations it doesn’t cover all of it. There’s an inherent logical flaw there to begin with. So I’m very comfortable with BARBRI covering that. 

I am interested to know a little bit more about the kind of student profile and their outcomes – what are you finding? I know it’s early stages, but what’s the typical profile of student on the MSc and what are their career goals from what you’re seeing? 

On the MSc we’re seeing a mix of domestic and foreign: it’s approximately 50:50 students. We’ve seen quite a few King’s students with humanities degrees in particular, but even wider than that: we’ve just picked up one who’s done neuroscience, for example.

The foreign students are interesting because it very much depends upon their local jurisdiction as to how they’re using the degree. In some jurisdictions, a Master’s degree from King’s is of particular assistance in their qualifying market. For domestic students, it’s about conversion and getting a career in law. 

What we have been surprised at is we thought there’d be more focus on the one-year conversion (PGDip), but actually people do want to do the two years as well and get the Masters. We are also introducing interviewing for places going forward – you want to really delve into people’s motivations for doing a course. One of the good models there is the ICCA who do the bar course – they interview. 

We’re a first-time cohort. So you do see a few students with differing goals from those which you might expect. So my message to other academics is we need to be getting closer to students and what their motivations are, helping to steer them. 

What’s your sense of the benefit of BARBRI to the wider populace at King’s in terms of the LLM students and the LLB and the non-law students? 

Well, that is interesting because yes we have BARBRI access for our wider students, in particular our LLM students. Which is great, because many of them have already practised for a number of years in an overseas jurisdiction and a significant number of them still want to practise law in London – because of the strength of it as a legal market. So they are looking quite hard at how they then get SQE1 and 2. Again, that tie with BARBRI is really important and it makes a whole lot of sense. And that’s something that I’ve just learned through experience talking to them. 

For the MSc, we are small at the moment. We’ve gone from a first cohort of 45 to a second cohort of 76 and we can go much higher than that. Our aim ultimately will be to grow to similar numbers to our LLB at King’s, which is about 300. So it’s quite a small programme overall. And I think it needs to be, we don’t want to get any bigger than that. That’s the nature of King’s. 

As for the legal education market: The thing that’s been really interesting is this very clear trend that firms are still liking and requiring the conversion course, and so we still see this 50/50 mix of non-law to law grads. There’s a huge opportunity for us and to me that’s a big thing, and it comes back to: how do we reshape that? 

The other big thing I’m well aware of is, for example, the programme at Queen Mary, and that is how do we get more work-based placements into our courses? Law needs to look at some of the slightly more proactive other faculties, engineering for example, where it’s effectively embedded. So for me, longer term, the question is how do we work with the law firms to give those opportunities? That is really important because it’s very clear that people who have done a work-based placement benefit enormously. And their skills improve immeasurably. 

Yeah, you’re right. Because as much as we can do problem-based learning, to replicate that environment, the students need to get out there and see how that works in an environment which is completely practical – real, for want of a better term. 

We as academics need to keep discussing how we can work to improve the vocational side of our training within a university setting. There is still this discord between academics and those doing research-based vs vocational-based. And that’s an unnatural and unnecessary wall, and we should break down walls wherever we can. 

So how do we do that and work together? That’s quite a difficult question because there’s a big focus on research, wider than law schools, driving the behaviours of management. But at the same time, we need to acknowledge that most people coming through are ultimately going on to a career in professional services within a law environment. And how do we give them those skills? 

It’s my little soapbox moment: the big opportunity for our students is to work as an in-house lawyer for a company, and I don’t think we’re teaching them any of those skills at all, or even really cognizant of some of those skills within our degrees. So, can we as like-minded individuals keep talking around those subjects?

Oh, again, it speaks to the same thing as the work-based placements. Massive fan of them. We need to do them in law, we need to embrace them. I’ve started to know a bit more about apprenticeships in the last five to six months, and a couple of things really strike me. One is that the way they teach apprentices is amazing, because teaching is at the core. The fact that for example you have these quarterly meetings between your firm, the apprentice and the training provider is amazing because you’re really looking at learning as you go. These are some of the methodologies that are great there. My message to us academic institutions is we need to challenge back the regulator because a lot of it’s great, but there’s too much regulation here and I worry that it creates too much pressure on the students, on the institutions. So can we be a little more nimble here? But first of all, I’d love to get this underway at a leading institution like King’s.

Can you talk about future plans for the PLI? What are those elements and key skills in preparation for the workplace? And what might be the future market movements going forward? You talked about the importance of the in-house sector. 

There’s a few things here, I think. For us going forward as an institute, we are and need to be more focused around what I would call lifelong learning. What is it that we can offer? King’s in particular is a full multifaceted institution. And that’s where we need to bring in other faculties. I was talking to Psychology this week, which we’ll be offering in year two, but, you know, how do we start to offer some of that to some lawyers, so that they can kind of curate their own careers outside of the firm environment? 

Because there are a couple of other trends we’re seeing here. One is definitely a generational change where people don’t necessarily want to work in Big Law – and a common one we get back from firms, which you’ll be aware of, Chris, is that the generation is not “quite as committed” – but that’s maybe not the right way of looking at it. So we need to address that and how they manage their careers. 

Then there’s certainly going to be a drop in hiring this year. There’s a drop in revenue already that’s, I think, simply market-driven: there was a huge amount of work in the last two years because of cheap price of debt, a lot of deals, a lot of pent-up demand after Covid. But are we for the first time now actually seeing some form of AI productivity gains? 

The question then becomes, for our law degrees, what skills should we be teaching them in that space? And it’s difficult, isn’t it? Because we’re still doing our seven foundation subjects – again, what are we trying to achieve here? What I say to my team, always, is it’s not what you put in the curriculum, it’s what you take out. So my message to the industry is to look hard at your degree, what can you take out, what are you teaching there? 

And that’s where, to me, the flexible course like BARBRI’s outside of the programme takes the pressure off and is an enabler to create that space. 

I totally couldn’t do that without BARBRI, and that’s why I’m a little bit reluctant to have an “embedded SQE degree”, because there’s so much SQE content which I don’t think is appropriate to how you necessarily practise or need to think. Leave that to BARBRI, and let’s find that time in our own degree to think about that. As I say to my team, what are the existential challenges facing the world? Climate change, AI, social media… What’s that got to do with Functioning Legal Knowledge? 

That’s a really interesting point. Yeah. And these are the pressing issues for students and for the firms they work for, aren’t they? And indeed, the clients they serve.  

You only have to go on to Lexology and the top ten articles will all be about the amount of regulation to do with whether it’s greenwashing or climate change or something in that space. There’s AI, there’s the EU and UK taking different positions. And I think ultimately, if you’re doing any educational degree, you want student interest peaked, for students to know that it’s relevant and that’s how you make a difference. But the challenge we’ve got is how do we find space for that? 

But I come back to thinking, well done Alex and Chris – yourself – because you had the vision to do this and to do it with an institute, and well done for setting up the BARBRI relationship because that’s a rock on which we can go forward on.

That’s really great. Lastly, though it’s early days, do you have any other thoughts on your experience of working with BARBRI? Have you had feedback from students yet? 

I am massively pleased with our relationship with BARBRI, that’s the first thing. I think it’s completely the right partner. I like the fact that, as opposed to other providers, this [the SQE] is what they do. They specialise in particular in the ability to pass multiple-choice questions, but I’m also seeing what they do in the SQE2. I am really impressed with their preparation, their use of the skills coaches. 

Further, my experience with BARBRI has been of an excellent and responsive partner. I’ve always found BARBRI a really good partner in terms of being able to pick up the phone to them and say, look, can we talk these issues through – they’re massively responsive. 

I can’t yet give you immediate feedback on the student experience with BARBRI, because we are one year in and our students are just about to start. But give us 12 months, and we can come back to this! 

Get in touch:

If you’d like to chat with us about our SQE prep offering for universities, please contact: Chris Howard, , +44 29 2053 6515

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