Reformed routes to qualification must command respect in other jurisdictions.
It is tedious when every aspect of life is subject to tumultuous change.
For instance, the training of solicitors used to be a dependable route. I could regale you with stories of ‘When I was at the College of Law…’ (now there are many providers), or ‘When I was doing my articles’ (now a training contract). And next month, the Solicitors Regulation Authority will consult us on what they call a new assessment framework, which will offer other options to qualification as a solicitor, including centralised assessments measured against the competence statement for solicitors which was published in April.
This may eventually replace mandatory training contracts, the Legal Practice Course and a law degree.
Before the SRA takes the plunge, I offer my own take on issues of importance from a European or global angle.
To begin, I implore the SRA to study how lawyers in other European countries qualify. This is easy nowadays – no lengthy research in 28 member states hoping to find answers in a language you can understand. The European Commission’s e-justice portal (e-justice.europa.eu) contains all the information for each state in an identical template and in English. I know it is common to consider the continent a bastion of unreasoning tradition, with no lessons for us go-ahead Brits. But the answers are important for a number of reasons.
First, the lawyers’ system of EU free movement is based on mutual trust, which in this case means that each member state recognises that the route to qualification as a lawyer in each other state is roughly equivalent, despite current differences. The SRA needs to be careful that it does not stretch the route available in England and Wales to the point where other member states no longer trust it, calling into question the whole framework of the EU system. This is unlikely given the current respect in which solicitors in England and Wales are held worldwide.
But the easiest way for the SRA to stay safe is to ensure that the forthcoming consultation is widely circulated to other member states and that their answers are carefully considered.
Second, the route to qualification needs to be trusted elsewhere as well. I have in the past had to argue with US authorities that the route to becoming a solicitor through a non-law degree is equivalent to that through a law degree.
Despite my arguments, they remained suspicious – US regulators are as old-fashioned as the SRA doubtless considers its continental counterparts to be. If we go down the route in future trade agreements of coming to deals on mutual recognition, we also need to be sure that the foreign countries with whom we are negotiating do not frown on any new route proposed, which could mean that they make a difference between various classes of solicitor depending on their route to qualification.
Before leaving this topic, I cannot resist singing the praises of the European Commission’s e-justice portal. For instance, on the topic of legal training, just one of its many subject areas, it has a database of approved training material for use by anyone, on a range of subjects – civil law, criminal law, human rights and more. For those who provide training for lawyers, there are various publications offering best practices. It is a treasure trove.
I am not against a change in the way that solicitors become solicitors. But it must be the right change. There is no doubt that gigantic new developments are creeping up. For instance, it is impossible to read the news without coming across commentary on how robots are breathing down our necks. There is artificial intelligence and there are unregulated online platforms offering legal services.
Commentators are divided on whether these will replace lawyers or enrich the services we will continue to provide. The changes are clearly here to stay (and grow). My question is: will our regulator take steps to steer the training of solicitors to cope with such changes, which may include changes to the route of qualification? Otherwise it may be battling imaginary challenges on our behalf, while ignoring the really threatening ones.
In essence, the routes to qualification need to embody a vision of how the profession will be in five and 10 years. I have no doubt that the SRA has a vision, but it should not be a purely domestic one based on an island’s deregulatory dream. We are still (for the time being) part of the EU, still part of the wider trading world and always connected to fast-changing networks introduced by global technology.
These are only some examples of issues which make the route to qualification so important.
Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs