Before discussing the specific history of the institution, we must look briefly to the 18th and 19th Century history of legal education in general.
An early regulator asserting some form of professional control on solicitors was the Society of Gentleman Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity, which was established in 1729 (for a full discussion of this regulatory development and Articled Clerks in general, please see my blog post on the History of the Training Contract). This body had the aim of improving the standards and reputation of solicitors.
In 1823, several attorneys related to this group desired the establishment of the London Law Institution, again to ensure good practice amongst solicitors. The Law Institution was established in 1825 (London having been dropped), although its full formal title was the Society of Attorneys, Solicitors, Proctors and others not being Barristers, practising in the Courts of Law and Equity of the United Kingdom. By 1903, it had changed its name to the Law Society, although it had been colloquially known as this for years beforehand.
The Law Society began lectures for Articled Clerks in 1833. However, mandatory requirements as to examination before entering, and during, your Clerkship were not introduced until 1860 and practical powers to conduct these examinations were not given to the Law Society until 1877. Initially, the Law Society employed a staggering 3 lecturers who each gave between 9 and 12 lectures annually. By 1863, tutorials were offered to support smaller groups of students and in 1879 a 4th lecturer was hired. Furthermore, in 1893, 2 tutors were hired to assist specifically with the tutorials.
The Law Society had an extensive library which was open every day between 9am and 9pm (except for a summer term when it closed at 6pm, or on Saturdays when it closed at 4pm). Articled Clerks were allowed to access the materials if they paid an annual subscription of £2.
This development built up to the Law Society opening its School of Law in 1903, an institution which by 1908 had 10 employees. In a trend as old as education itself, attendance at the Society’s lectures was low and actually declined due to the intense competition of a private legal tutorial firm, Gibson & Weldon, who opened their doors in 1876. Students were not obligated to attend lectures and 88% of those who took the Law Society’s examinations attended none of the Society’s lectures.
In 1922, the Law Society required a mandatory year of lectures before sitting the middle of 3 examinations, the Intermediate Examination. Gibson & Weldon was the Law Society’s fiercest competitor and the Society negotiated a merger between them and its School of Law in 1962. The combined body was called the College of Law. The College was created in its official legal form by a Royal Charter of 1975.
In a trend that has continued, the tuition fee for a 1 year course at the College of Law was expensive; £914 in 1979 and for full-time Legal Practice Courses (a course replacing the old Final Examination) starting in September 2015; £14,750 at the London centres. A major change to the College of Law occurred in 2012 when it was granted full University status and changed its name to the University of Law. The re-branding and implications of this change are still being implemented as at 2015 and are likely to continue for several years to come.
From 1962 and over the following decades, the College of Law established itself as the premier provider of legal education and is a universally known and respected name amongst the legal profession. A range of centres were opened at locations across the UK, alongside the offering of a variety of courses. The University of Law now offers an undergraduate LLB law degree and has recently announced an MSc Masters degree in Law, Business and Management.
The University continues to be at the forefront of legal education and is heavily involved in the development, facilitation and improvement of the provision of, and access to, legal education. For example, through its fledgling Legal Services apprenticeships and a foundation course enabling international students, on completion, to study at undergraduate level at the University.
The University of Law is an institution with deep historical roots and, considering the dynamic changes in the regulation of legal education and changes in how the legal profession needs to operate to thrive, we may see further changes in decades to come.