Legal training: the best routes to becoming a lawyer
Abolishing the concept of the qualifying law degree, more common training for prospective lawyers, replacing the training contract with ‘supervised practice’ and sector-wide CPD – just some of the ‘more radical’ ideas being considered by the profession-wide Legal Education and Training Review (LETR).
But just how great is the appetite for radical change which could see activity-based regulation reducing the need for an all-round legal education; the right to practise separated from the title of solicitor or barrister; and multiple routes to becoming a ‘lawyer’?
Roger Bamber, joint head of family law at national firm Mills & Reeve, is in no doubt that change is needed: ‘The future of the legal profession is in the balance. If we don’t respond positively and constructively to new ideas about education and training, we will lose ground not only internationally but also against other providers of legal services here. This isn’t a luxury – this is a necessity.’
John Flood, professor of law at The University of Westminster, agrees: ‘The legal market is going to change so dramatically over the next few years that if the legal profession doesn’t entertain change, it will happen without them and in spite of them.’
For Tony King, chair of the Law Society’s education and training committee, the key is to create a structure that recognises there are layers of work and different tracks, as practitioners go from the most junior roles to the most senior.
‘If we are going to keep some degree of title distinction,’ he says, ‘then it is entirely reasonable to have a rigorous assessment for each layer and as you progress through the titles. At the moment there is a degree of silo-ing, so it would be good to have a system where you can progress from being, for example, a will-writer, to being a solicitor, with credit for what you have done before.
‘What is absolutely essential is that there are opportunities for social mobility and diversity. I want anybody who is talented to come into the legal services market and be able to do a great job at the appropriate level role for them.’
‘We must certainly strive to attract more diverse entrants,’ agrees Ian Gascoigne, head of lawyer development at Eversheds. ‘Finance is central to that, especially with the imminent rise in university tuition fees. Any changes to the qualification process need to be tested against the aim of achieving wider attraction as well as lawyer development and client protection.’
Concerns about the effectiveness of the current system, tied in with issues over diversity and social mobility, have already prompted firms to be innovative – with schemes to attract new talent into law through to enhanced CPD options.
More than 50 firms have signed up to the Prime initiative, offering work experience to school pupils from the age of 14. Other examples across the training process include Eversheds’ Unlocked Academy to guide disadvantaged students from A-level to graduation, while Manchester-based Pannone and magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer have pledged scholarships at degree level.
Eversheds is also piloting a combined study and training contract so students qualify quicker and are paid while they study, while Mills & Reeve has developed an online CPD package for its family lawyers which it is now offering commercially.
So, what are the highlights so far from the LETR, set up by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards, and billed as the most fundamental review of legal education for 40 years? It hopes to achieve a ‘relatively high level of consensus’ on what needs to change and to report by December – though there have been hints that might slip – with the regulators putting their proposals to the LSB by mid-2013.
The primary objective of the review is to ensure England and Wales have a legal education and training system fit for the regulatory objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007. Its first discussion paper highlights concerns over fairness in the admissions process; the very clear ‘hemispheric divide’’ at the LPC stage between those sponsored by City firms and those who aren’t; the difficulty of getting a training contract; and criticism of the way CPD is measured.
At the same time, it warns that the greater accessibility of the New York Bar to overseas lawyers looking for a second, more international qualification is putting the profession and law firms in England and Wales ‘at a serious competitive disadvantage’.
LSB chair David Edmonds set out his thinking at a recent seminar: ‘I would be extraordinarily disappointed if, at the end of the review, we end up with changes on the margins.
‘Unless we produce a system of training and education that reflects the needs of the legal services market and of consumers, we may well see yet another British institution declining in the face of international competition.’
According to Professor Stephen Mayson, director of the College of Law’s Legal Services Institute, the current system ‘isn’t totally unfit for purpose as there are some stunningly good lawyers and firms, but it is not fit enough for the demands of the market. However, incremental changes won’t be enough. I am not suggesting we should throw the baby out with the bathwater – but the baby has grown up, the bath is too small and the water needs changing’.
So what changes do academics, junior lawyers and partners want to see? Flood says the profession can make a real contribution in discussing what it wants out of the qualifying law degree because the current degree is a ‘gigantic fudge’. ‘We pack in a little bit of liberal arts education, bundle it with some technical legal knowledge and then say we produce well-rounded individuals – that is sheer nonsense,’ he adds.
Jude Perkins, immediate past-chair of the Junior Lawyers Division, disagrees: ‘There is nothing wrong with the qualifying law degree placing more emphasis on the academic, rather than practical, elements of legal practice. In fact, it is a credit to the degree that it attracts students who have no intention of pursuing a career in law.’
Simon Johnson, Freshfields’ trainee recruitment partner, says the firm would like to see the introduction of business principles and commercial rationale at an earlier stage, as well as more formal and rigorous drafting skills. ‘Even stellar candidates don’t communicate on paper as well as they ought to,’ he says.
According to the LETR paper, this is a far from uncommon concern, with ‘troubling’ criticism about ‘illiterate graduates’ unable to sustain an argument or use formal language.
Tony King, director of the Clifford Chance Academy, says the content of the degree needs to be reviewed so the foundation subjects are appropriate for the current environment. ‘Academics are the experts on how to teach it, but I would like to see a greater consistency in breadth without saying they all have to be identical. What is the alternative – the GDL for everyone? It is a tenable argument but it would add cost and is that feasible in the current climate?’
New models are already being developed. Northumbria University offers a four-year exempting degree combined with the LPC. It has also developed a M.Law programme so students graduate as fully qualified solicitors after five years’ integrated training.
BPP Law School runs a law degree designed for students who are certain they want a career in law. Peter Crisp, dean of the law school, says: ‘The debate around whether the LLB is fit for purpose is misconceived. The problem with many, if not most, LLBs is not so much the content but that they are designed and taught by ivory tower academics and researchers who are not qualified lawyers and have never practised. They design programmes which are too theoretical and removed from the coal face of the profession.’
The College of Law is extending its new two-year law degree to four of its seven centres when it starts this September because of demand, with nearly 500 applications. Its chief executive, professor Nigel Savage, notes: ‘It’s a brave profession that says we are not expecting any foundation knowledge before you come in to the next stage.
‘However, the cost of higher education means you have to take a radical look at how quickly you can get people through the degree programme.’
The LPC, introduced nearly 20 years ago, also provokes strong reactions. It is ‘bankrupt’ says Flood.
While it lacks sufficient emphasis on soft skills training, such as networking or public speaking, Perkins says most JLD members feel it provides adequate value for those pursuing a legal career. ‘What concerns me more is the lack of uniformity when it comes to examining the LPC, with some institutions favouring open book exams, others closed book, so it is difficult to compare results accurately.’
The question now being debated is whether students should qualify as solicitors after an improved LPC, with those wanting to go on to do reserved activities taking further qualifications. With concerns that the shortage of training contracts is creating a barrier to entry, would that tick the diversity box or risk diluting the brand of solicitor?
‘I honestly don't see what problems moving the point of qualification would solve,’ says Perkins. ‘If anything, it could create two tiers of solicitor, with those with less funds available for additional tuition opting for unreserved activities only, and vice versa. Furthermore, the bottleneck which currently exists would simply move, with everyone seeking qualified solicitor-positions post-LPC, as opposed to seeking training contracts.’
JLD committee member Camilla Graham Wood favours a work-based learning model. ‘I don’t think that I am alone in believing it is the LPC that should be scrapped or at least made more relevant/shortened/made less expensive. Personally, I feel the training stage is invaluable and I would be totally useless as a solicitor without it. The LPC doesn’t really give you any practical skills, and it is only by working and being supervised that you learn how to be a good solicitor.’
‘Call me old fashioned,’ says Penny Cooper, associate dean of City Law School, ‘but I personally believe in the value of apprenticeship after law school. Also, scrapping training contracts could have a negative effect on diversity. They give plenty of people without existing contacts in law a chance to prove themselves in person and gain valuable “career confidence”, while employers can spot those who have potentially excellent client skills and commercial awareness. Exam results can't tell employers that’.
King also wants to see the retention of some form of work-based experience – ‘losing that would downgrade the qualification. The training contract has worked well in terms of socialising professionals but there are those who can’t get one and so are stuck.
‘Wearing all my hats, I would be happier with supervised post-LPC training before someone gets the solicitor badge. However, there is a perfectly valid discussion to be had about getting it after the LPC because nobody recognises that as a qualification outside the legal profession and it would be good to have something saleable at that point.’
Gascoigne says the training contract should not be seen as an assessment process. ‘It's about introducing young lawyers to an advisory role with the safeguard that they must be closely supervised in that period. That safeguard assists both clients and lawyers. However, I would favour considering how that purpose could be achieved in 12 months with specialised services, such as advocacy, permitted later after relevant experience has been gained.’
For would-be solicitors, the critical issue is whether they will find a job at the end of a very expensive process. The JLD has been chasing up employability figures. Committee member Emma Dickinson has put in FoI requests to GDL and LPC providers on how many students get training contracts. The responses have been sparse with few following up on their students. ‘I think they are missing a trick because they could use this information in their commercial material,’ she says. ‘It is also not great for students who are paying thousands for a course but can’t find any information on potential employability afterwards.’
Joanne Rourke, College of Law employability programme manager, says it follows up on full-time LPC students around six months after they have left. Among the full-time students who passed the LPC in summer 2010 and responded, 84% were in legal work – 62% in training contracts and 22% in paralegal or law-related roles. This was a slight drop from the previous year when 88% were in legal work – 68% in training contracts and 20% in paralegal or law-related roles.
Another factor which is likely to drive changes in legal training is the arrival of ABSs, which some commentators believe could mean fewer trainees and newly qualified posts if they take leverage of partially trained lay people to new levels.
Bob Labadie, principal solicitor with The Co-operative Legal Services, says the challenge is to give all staff the opportunity to access a legal career at the level appropriate for them. ‘It is very important for our brand that we have people working here who we know have reached a certain level, and the best way to achieve that is train them ourselves.’
Where you will get interesting developments, says Flood, is if business schools get together with legal training suppliers. ‘There will be a market for people working in ABSs who want a whole series of skills of which law is only one part alongside management, marketing, business development.’
Savage agrees ABSs will be very significant and could mean more work for lawyers. ‘However, the training contract model won’t suit them so we will have to look at new ways to enable students to qualify. There is the scope to be much more radical – for instance you can do the College LPC online so it could be done in the workplace.’
The debate over CPD is also intensifying. Andy Boon, dean of the University of Westminster’s School of Law, told a recent seminar on ‘Demonstrating Competence, Identifying Incompetence’ that the LSB is proposing regulatory interventions which envisage much more by way of verification of competence, with assessed CPD, authorisation and quality marks – ‘and that’s just for starters’.
Speaking at the seminar, Neil Wightman of the Legal Services Consumer Panel said consumer power should be ‘unleashed’ to drive greater competence. There should also be a revalidation process similar to the medical profession – something consumers already think solicitors have to undergo, according to the panel’s research.
For Perkins, CPD is ‘poorly monitored, and of little actual value. There needs to be another way in which professional learning and development is monitored and rewarded, for example by requiring individual solicitors to undertake CPD which is specific to their practice area, or by allocating different CPD points to different types of professional development activity’.
Three years ago, Mills & Reeve decided that the current system of CPD was ‘rubbish and we would invent our own’, says Bamber. ‘We do vastly more than the required 16 hours, which is hopelessly inadequate. It is also completely unfocused. I could get to the end of the year and if I couldn’t get on a family law course, I could get my points with something on RTAs, which is ludicrous.
‘We considered how we should get someone who has just qualified via the traditional route to become a good family lawyer. The received wisdom is that you let newly qualifieds make all their mistakes on clients, hopefully under good supervision, and they will muddle through. That is not great for the clients and it means your career is governed by the cases you handle.’
Instead, the firm has created a national career development plan for its family lawyers which covers black letter law and soft skills modules at basic, intermediate and advanced levels. It is launching it commercially as the Family Law Hub.
‘The idea,’ he explains, ‘is if one of my guys finds he has to do a financial injunction he can go on the database and get specimen letters and statements, a checklist of things to consider, a video from a barrister, plus the option of coming back afterwards to add notes. So it is focused on the outcome, it gives them the tools to do the job, improves the quality of their day-to-day work and is reflective.’
CPD has become a mechanical exercise, too focused on risk and too restrictive, says Gascoigne. ‘I would like to see it increased to about 25 hours and become more liberal in its scope with a reflective element. It should not be just about keeping up to date with cases and legislation, but looking at how you can develop ways of working that will benefit existing clients and attract new ones.’
Cooper, who is director of CPD at City Law School, says the reality is a ‘mixed picture. While some practitioners may see CPD as simply a box to tick, I hope the profession is also doing CPD beyond the classroom using practical work-based activities’.
She says the responsibility must always rest with the individual practitioner to do activities that are relevant and effective for them, adding: ‘The old adage “the more you put in the more you get out” holds true.’
Whatever the final proposals, the review is being seen as the first real test of two-tier regulation. More common training, for instance, will raise questions about having multiple regulators for areas such as advocacy, already at odds over the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates.
John Randall, senior research fellow with the College of Law’s Legal Services Institute, said recently that if the review didn’t create consistency among the frontline regulators there could be a ‘race to the bottom’ with people choosing to go to the regulator that they felt was the softest option. If it gets it wrong, the two-tier regulation will go as it did in the financial services sector.
The SRA would not be drawn into that debate, only commenting: ‘Our focus is on ensuring that all those who are regulated by us have met the standards which we set – regardless of their chosen route to qualification.’
Savage just wants the review ‘to get on with it. The current system is not fit for purpose. But it is one thing to draw up proposals and quite another to get the professional bodies to agree to them and to get all the vested interests – not least the current LPC providers, to be honest, and the big universities – to change.’
The next steps on the research-side of the review take place in July with an international symposium in Manchester and publication of a second discussion paper.
In the meantime, the message for the profession is to engage in the debate or risk losing control of the central question – just what are we training lawyers for? n
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist
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