The Solicitors Regulation Authority held the first ever international conference specifically for legal regulators last week, and it was a big success. More than 100 delegates attended, including regulators from the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Ireland and many other jurisdictions.
True, the SRA had cleverly timed the event to take place right before the International Bar Association’s Conference just across the Irish Sea in Dublin, but to be fair, most of the delegates to whom I spoke had made their journey purely for the SRA’s conference. They seemed excited by the opportunity to get together as legal regulators and exchange ideas, frustrations and horror stories about the challenges of regulating a rapidly evolving legal profession (see Thursday’s Gazette for a full report).
There’s no doubt that regulators from other jurisdictions are keenly interested in what the SRA is doing; moving to principles-based outcomes-focused regulation, and licensing alternative business structures. But the big turnout last week is not an indication that foreign regulators will be following suit any time soon. While some aspects of the SRA’s new regime may appeal – for example its more proactive approach to risk and greater dialogue with the profession – others most certainly do not.
Most regulators to whom I spoke did not agree with the concept of allowing non-lawyers to own legal practices; but those from European jurisdictions were wary that, if the model is seen to work in England and Wales, it may ultimately be imposed on them by the European Commission. After all, the commission has already begun asking legal regulators to justify why their reserved legal activities should remain in place. Some more conservative regulators worry that the SRA has adopted too much of a ‘market driven’ approach, seen as typical of the UK.
Privately, some are also very concerned by the Legal Education and Training Review, the main thrust of which is to open up access to the professions. They see a work-based training route as deskilling the profession – and are conscious that while it will still take many years to qualify as a lawyer in their own jurisdiction, England and Wales may be providing an easy route in, and – for European jurisdictions – a possible back door into their own professions under European rules.
It is also fair to say that the Legal Practice Course is regarded by many foreign regulators as less rigorous than entrance procedures in place at home; and the one-year law conversion course available for non-law university graduates raises hackles even further. When the argument is made about the need to open up this elitist profession, part-time courses and night school are suggested as the solution, rather than a work-based training route that is seen as dumbing down.
At the end of the conference, the regulators agreed to form a ‘coalition of the willing’, committed to continuing what has been for them a very useful opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas. What changes will or will not have taken place in other jurisdictions by the time of the next meeting – pencilled in for 2013 in San Francisco – remains to be seen.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Litigation Funding magazine, providing in-depth coverage on costs and the financing of litigation.
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