As proposed changes to the route to qualification draw closer to implementation, it is worth assessing the role of the training contract in fostering and developing the skills needed to be a solicitor.
The training contract has been the route to qualification for almost a generation of solicitors. However, over the last 30 years the legal sector has changed dramatically. Advances in technology have changed the office in many ways, from paperless working to flexible working. The widespread introduction of legal tech is set to reshape the profession further.
The regulator wants to ensure that the changes in working practices are reflected in the route to qualification for aspiring solicitors, with centralised assessment to ensure consistency and a high standard of legal services across the board.
The SRA’s 2016 Training for Tomorrow report sought to explore how different kinds of work experience contributed to the journey to qualification. In particular, the report highlighted the vast difference in training and development experienced by individuals completing their training contracts at different organisations across England and Wales. Since then the SRA has sought to build upon these findings, resulting in the announcement that a Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) will be introduced.
A crucial element of this new route to qualification will be the abolition of the two-year period of recognised training (otherwise known as the training contract). Instead, under the SQE the aspiring solicitor will undertake qualifying work experience. An individual could choose to gain their two-year work experience at up to four different organisations, including traditional firms, law clinics or in-house departments. Working as a paralegal or apprentice, working in a student law clinic, placements and formal training contracts will all contribute to qualifying work experience.
Any qualifying work experience would need to enable an individual to gain and develop the prescribed competencies.
The most common route to qualification involves individuals completing a law degree or law conversion course, followed by the completion of the Legal Practice Course, before commencing two years of recognised training at an organisation regulated by the SRA. Though this two-year period is no longer officially referred to as a training contract, culturally within firms its name has persisted long after the regulations changed. Those undertaking this period of recognised training are still referred to as ‘trainees’ by many organisations.
The workplace has changed since the training contract was first introduced, but its role in developing and nurturing the skills needed to be a solicitor should not be underestimated.
The current training contract offers opportunities to ‘sit’ in a wide range of departments and experience how they work. Exposure to this range of work allows trainees to expand knowledge of the law, while also ensuring they are able to achieve and demonstrate a standard of competence appropriate to the work they are undertaking. It is common to speak to qualified solicitors who were not fond of an area of law while studying it at university, but went on to a successful career practising in that area once qualified.
In addition to the opportunity to experience different areas of law, the cultural identity of being a trainee solicitor often gives an individual a sense of identity and pride. By being part of a cohort of trainees, a trainee solicitor has the ability to seek support and reassurance from those who have shared similar experiences. This is something which allows trainees to grow and develop together.
It is important that the qualifying work experience element of the SQE also allows those undertaking it to pursue other interests or activities within the organisation of which they are a part. This has always been a positive aspect of the training contract. Trainees are often encouraged to pursue their interests in (for example) pro bono, charity work or sport. They also have the ability to meet other junior professionals in their local area and get involved with their local or national Junior Lawyers Division. These opportunities allow trainees to represent their firms and develop bonds with fellow trainees across their firm and across their local area, thus enabling them to develop their ability to work as part of a team or manage their time effectively. The bond created with the people you train with is something which often lasts a lifetime. Future careers may develop in completely different ways, whether qualifying into different areas of law or choosing to move in-house, or even pursuing a career in non-legal roles.
Of course, how the changes to qualifying work experience will affect aspiring solicitors will not be known until after implementation. However, it is important that those individuals are given the opportunity to try different areas of law as those who ‘sat’ in different departments did in the past. The legal sector thrives when those who are part of it are well-rounded individuals who appreciate the importance of legal knowledge allied with the soft skills needed to navigate your legal career. The training contract helped to provide this – one hopes the reformed system will too.
Nicola Wilding, a commercial real estate associate at DLA Piper in Liverpool, is a member of the Junior Lawyers Division executive committee