One striking difference between the English and Continental European legal traditions is that English legal education has been organised and controlled by the legal profession, rather than universities. Until the late 20th century, most English lawyers, and the vast majority of England’s higher judiciary, learnt their law as apprentice-lawyers in practice, and as a consequence of the legal professions’ examination requirements , rather than at university. Intellectually, the position of law within the university was highly contested. Significant elements within the legal profession were hostile to academic law and those lawyers who graduated from university, especially barristers, tended not to study law. Scholars in other disciplines were sceptical about Law’s potential contribution to academia. Legal practitioners and academics in other disciplines tended to regard law as a practical subject, like plumbing, and best learnt in practice. Law schools were frequently regarded as intellectually inferior to the better established disciplines within the university firmament, such as classics, mathematics and science.
It was this collective distain for university legal education that Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922) confronted in his inaugural lecture as Vinerian Professor of Law at the University of Oxford, entitled “Can English Law Be Taught at the University?’ (1883).Dicey’s measured denunciation of contemporary legal education followed the charges already levelled in parliamentary reports and debates, newspapers and magazines, notably, highly critical government reports of 1846 and 1854 - charges that almost invariably emphasised the invidious comparison between legal education in England, and that in Continental Europe and the United States. Thus, Dicey’s lecture drew upon a pre-existing linguistic repertoire and rhetoric to underpin his arguments.
From a comparative perspective, Dicey’s inaugural lecture was one of several such clarion calls. It was part of a transnational movement, associated with the period circa 1850-1914, that sought to establish a particular form of modern university law school and of liberal legal science that became the “orthodoxy” of modern legal education and scholarship.
Dicey was obsessed with the inferior status of university law teachers relative to the established professions, and in particular, the legal elite. His recurrent discontent with the world of legal practice was personal: originally, Dicey had sought and failed to establish a career at the Bar, in the hope that it would provide a springboard into the world of politics. His failure to win distinction in legal practice is a significant context for understanding his transition from would-be barrister-politician and senior judge to Dicey the Vinerian Professor of English Law. On the one hand, Dicey’s dissatisfaction with his experience at the Bar, and the Bar as an institution, was evident in his earliest publications , where he attacked the Bar’s culture of patronage, deference and restrictive practices – criticisms which provide part of the background to his inaugural Lecture. On the other hand, Dicey never ceased aspiring to membership of the imperial class to which elite legal practitioners and senior judges belonged.
Dicey’s struggle to accommodate legal practitioners, and to gain admittance to the upper echelons of the profession, came at a cost. By defining the province of the university law school in such narrowly positivistic terms, and ceding “reality” to the exclusive competence of legal practitioners, Dicey’s inaugural lecture embodied and ratified a conception of legal education and scholarship that does not take full account of the institutional, practical, moral, political and historical foundations of law. Although Dicey was among a generation of university law teachers who ultimately fostered a closer rapport between university legal education and practising lawyers, he was not interested in bringing other disciplines, such as history, politics, sociology and anthropology, into the law school.