We need to reset the debate on the future of solicitor education.
George Osborne knows how to do it. Make a mess; kick up a hornet’s nest; reverse instantly; proclaim victory. The other option is to dig in; see opposition as a sign of your virtue; and set up a battle of wills. This sometimes wins. But the stakes are high. We have yet to see where the Solicitors Regulation Authority goes in the face of near-universal hostility to its training proposals.
One of the problems for the SRA is that this is not just a debate about its education proposals. It is more existential; it is about regulation and who should do it. The SRA is currently ‘cock of the walk’, but at its back lies a government attracted to the idea of a super-regulator which would absorb it. Out in front is the Law Society which, though it supported the creation of the SRA, now rather regrets it and would like nothing better than at least to get education back under its control.
Perhaps to reinforce its position, the SRA has called down a perfect storm of vested interests. The profession does not want its meddling; the universities do not want the threat to their finances; and the City does not want its interference in forms of practice that it thinks it just doesn’t understand. For a certain personality, there is great comfort in proclaiming that a united opposition proves that you are right and that you are not for turning. For myself, I was always a trimmer. I would go for the George Osborne approach. We shall see.
The great danger in all this is that the proposals themselves will be submerged. But the future training for the profession needs full and open debate.
The SRA wants a simplified, American-style scheme where you sit a Bar examination that tests a series of competences. As long as you meet these, you are in – even if it takes you forever to pass the exam. This is supremely logical but practically flawed.
There are times when I feel my age. I stood outside Alexandra Palace after taking two sets of profession-set exams. I prepared for them at the old-style College of Law, still influenced by its origins as the crammer Gibson and Weldon. On the only occasion I ever visited Harvard Law School, I encountered the bizarre experience of a deadly quiet – but full – lecture theatre watching a video without any apparent lecturer on how to pass a tort Bar exam.
You can talk all the educational theory you like about competence-based assessment but a one-off, multi-choice, computer-marked, universal examination will: bring back the crammer; put a value on short-term memory; and do little to encourage a deep understanding of the law and still less the cussed individualism that is the hallmark of the great lawyer.
And, there is the rub. Technology and market forces are going to transform the legal profession over the next decade. I could once repeat great chunks of the Theft Act 1968 by heart. Soon, I will simply be able to ask Google’s DeepMind, IBM’s Watson or even Siri. Lawyers used to be the repositories of arcane knowledge. You could rise to great heights with a good memory and canny skill.
The managing partner who hired me as an articled clerk at Allen & Overy (to his great credit) began as a tea boy. He was, even then, an exceptional man, but you would need more developed intellectual and management skills to run the kind of international corporate firm that is now so important for the UK Justice Brand (yuk to the language, but hurrah for the concept).
The problem with the SRA proposals is that their reductionism will lead to their irrelevance. The problem of equality of entry will be solved only at a theoretical level. In practice, to succeed you will need a good law degree or equivalent from a respected university plus further training at Master’s level or above. Otherwise, you will have a qualification but not a job.
The notion that robots will replace lawyers in the next couple of decades is rubbish. We will survive – but we will be fewer. And this will be because we promote ourselves as the solvers of problems: with creativity, practicality, ethics and knowledge of how to use the law. To quote a recent Boston Consulting Group (Bucerius Law School) study, lawyers will need skills in case management processes, legal technology, more specific legal-tech skills (such as database management, statistics, analytics and digital communications) and business skill – as well as legal knowledge. There is little recognition of that from the SRA.
The debate on the future of education should be reset. If this is the SRA’s best shot, then it should be seen as only an opening challenge to the City, the Law Society and everyone else to come up with something better.
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice