Training review: a collegiate sense of déjà vu
There was a distinct sense of déjà vu about the sense of déjà vu I felt at the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) symposium in Manchester last week.
The LETR, sponsored by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and Chartered Institute of Legal Executive Professional Standards, is billed as ‘the most fundamental review of legal education and training for a generation’.
And yet surely, I thought to myself, I’ve heard all this before - and before and before and… You get the picture.
What did we hear? We heard that there is an over-supply of law and Legal Practice Course graduates all with huge debts from paying their tuition fees and all chasing the same shrinking pool of training contracts - as the Junior Lawyers Division, among others, has been saying for years.
We heard that law degrees focus too much on the academic side of the profession and too little on the practical side. Law students should be more like medical students, we heard, doing the legal version of ward rounds from day one.
College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage said that same thing in an interview with me just a few weeks ago.
We were told that it’s maybe time to return to the old debt-free five-year articles route to qualification - after all, some of this country’s top lawyers qualified that way. The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives has for years been promoting its earning-while-you’re-learning route to becoming a legal professional without mortgaging your future.
We even got to listen to the Gospel according to alternative business structures, which reminded us - echoing so many doom mongers and soothsayers before - that the Legal Services Act changed the legal landscape forever, opening the floodgates to law firms owned by non-lawyers and largely staffed by non-lawyers, such as IT and marketing managers (and butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, if that’s what takes your fancy).
So the symposium was a waste of time, then? Not at all - it did what it said on the label, a symposium being a ‘conference or meeting to discuss a particular subject’, according to the Oxford dictionary. (A symposium is also defined as a ‘drinking party’, but all I was offered was a cup of tea.)
LETR research team leader and Warwick University professor of legal education Julian Webb said: ‘By bringing together regulators, practitioners, students and educators for two days of focused, facilitated discussion on the future of legal services education and training, the LETR Symposium has made a major contribution.’
His team is to deliver a discussion paper in September, he said, and make its final recommendations in late December.
Whereupon, according to the Q&A section on the LETR website: ‘Once the research programme has been completed and the researchers have presented their final report, the three sponsoring regulators will consider the recommendations arising and prepare a response individually and/or collectively as appropriate. It will be for each regulator to set out a process for addressing the recommendations in the report.’
‘Ay, there’s the rub,’ as the Bard put it. Because from what I heard in Manchester, the LETR is big on discussion - many of the delegates had that comfortable, collegiate tweed-jacket-with-leather-elbow-patches air about them.
But I got no sense that they were anywhere near reaching the ‘final recommendations’ or ‘final report’ stage of their deliberations.
How exactly do they intend to overcome the financial vested interests of education and training providers? How are they going to persuade the profession to invest in its own future by making more training positions available - because won’t such altruism reduce the profit that equity partners can trouser?
Who is going to make law firms expose their clients to trainees from day one?
What are they going to do about the dinosaur element of the profession, which has no truck with these darned ABS-thingies and, anyway, the present education system worked OK for them?
They didn’t answer any of those questions. So watch this space - but don’t hold your breath.
Jonathan Rayner is a reporter on the Gazette
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