Legal Education Digest
Legal Skills for First-year Law Students: Too Little, Too Late?
A Kok & A Nienaber
 LegEdDig 11; (2006) 14(3) Legal Education Digest 15
39 Law Teacher 2, 2005, pp 161–180
As is the case with other law faculties in South Africa, the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria radically had to rethink its undergraduate curriculum after the legislature introduced a 4-year, undergraduate LLB degree in 1998. As a consequence, not only was the LLB curriculum redesigned, but Legal Skills was introduced as a compulsory subject for first-year law students. The introduction of Legal Skills was a response to the sense that existent language courses do not meet the specific language needs of law students. In the past the University of Pretoria, like many other South African universities, required students of law to study one or more language-based courses. However, traditionally, these were heavily weighted towards the elucidation of literacy texts and provided the minimum of language study.
At the University of Pretoria, Legal Skills was designed to meet the need for a more subject-specific approach to the teaching of language and study skills. The course focuses on the literacy and study and research skills required by the successful law student. Legal texts serve as the basis of a skills course for first-year law students, teaching them where to find and how to read case reports, where to find and how to apply relevant legislation to novel facts; how to research, formulate and write legal opinions; how to draft letters to clients and how to construct oral and written arguments.
From the outset it was clear that there was a great disparity in the level of students’ existing skills. As a consequence of the complexities and anomalies of secondary education in South Africa and because it functions as a multilingual society, it was decided to stream students into different classes based on the results of a skills analysis test written early in the year. From the start it was clear that mother-tongue speakers as well as non-mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans or English found the demands of the Legal Skills course a challenge. The specific nature of legal language in addition to the heavy demands made on tertiary-level students generally set a difficult task for mother-tongue and non-mother-tongue speakers alike.
Most law lecturers agree that the low level of language skills amongst law students needs to be addressed urgently. Students cannot communicate adequately, either orally or in writing. Students who otherwise should do well fail because they cannot cope with the demands made upon them as a result of inadequate language skills. The fact that many students study through a medium of instruction other than their mother tongue plays a significant role in their inability to cope with the demands made on them. Boldly stressed, that is the scenario that existed; has there been any move in a positive direction?
At the University of Pretoria we introduced the subject Legal Skills in an attempt to find a solution to the difficulty. Within the limits of quantitative statistical research such as is the basis of this project there is little evidence for rejoicing. Students continue to perform consistently poorly and appear to derive little benefit from a Legal Skills course. Is this result proof of the maxim, too little, too late?
Many would argue that students such as these simply do not belong at a university. Similarly, it is asserted that it is not the task of a law faculty to teach its students basic language skills. At this stage, as a consequence of the South African secondary education system coupled with past inequity, we maintain that the law faculty cannot afford to take this view. Nevertheless, the strongest evidence that emerges from this project is that there is a correlation between poor performance at a tertiary level of education and not being instructed in one’s mother tongue, even though it cannot be claimed that the former is a direct consequence of the latter. Therefore, a way has to be found to enhance poor language skills in order to afford students who have the potential to complete a law degree the chance to do so.
Post matriculation bridging courses, such as those specifically designed to remedy language problems, have been introduced and are offered to the whole student body. However, because of the general nature of their application they reintroduce the problem that they cannot meet the specific language and conceptual skills needs of the law faculty. It is not possible for the law faculty itself to operate this sort of course. Nevertheless, Legal Skills, which at present is taught in the first year only, cannot be seen as a magic potion which will get students through their law studies. The skills acquired in the first year need continuing attention in order that they are developed and perfected in later years of study. Legal Skills ought to be integrated into the entire 4-year LLB curriculum, in such a way that every course taught reinforces what has been learnt in the first year.