Solicitors need to be equipped to practise in a more competitive and customer-focused environment.
When I started my career as an articled clerk in the late 1960s, I could not have foreseen the unprecedented changes to legal services which have taken place during my working life. In particular, the liberalisation of the market, made possible by the Legal Services Act of 2007, means that today’s solicitors’ firms are competing for clients with a growing number of ABSs and other legal services providers who are doing business in ways which would not have been possible previously.
The traditional education and training system has served us well to date, but technology, changing consumer demands, the removal of restrictions and the regulatory system itself are reshaping the ways in which legal services are delivered. Legal education and training must adapt to reflect these wider changes. Furthermore, the current system is not always a guarantor of quality across the board, and the changes we are seeking will address that.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority welcomed the publication of the Legal Education and Training Review’s research report in July, as a first stage towards ensuring that England and Wales has a legal education and training system which is fit for the future. Last week the SRA published its policy statement, Training for Tomorrow, in which we set out how we propose to bring about the changes that must happen if we are to equip new solicitors with the skills they need to practise in a more competitive and customer-focused environment.
As chair of the SRA, I am strongly committed to ensuring that we develop an education and training framework which enables us to ensure that new entrants to the profession have the qualities and skills necessary to keep the UK at the forefront of global legal services. In some ways, I am treading a familiar path. From 1994-99, I was the solicitor member of the lord chancellor’s advisory committee on legal education and conduct. Its final report, although well-researched and comprehensive, was kicked into the long grass and the proposals were not taken forward. But that will not happen this time. We have embarked upon a journey that will finish only when a new education and training framework which meets the requirements of the future is in place.
Training for Tomorrow contains three headline proposals:
- We will develop a competency framework which will set out the knowledge, skills and attributes that a solicitor requires at the point of qualification. This will enable us to assess competence at that stage as well as enabling greater flexibility in the ways individuals can qualify as solicitors. It will remove artificial barriers to access to the profession, and support greater efficiency and innovation on the part of legal training providers. It will ensure that the best people from all sectors of society are not denied the opportunity to become solicitors.
- The current ‘tick box’ system of CPD will disappear. We will put in place a strategy for assuring continuing competence, which focuses on the effectiveness of post-qualification training and enables individual solicitors to tailor their training to meet their personal circumstances, rather than measuring how many hours a year an individual has spent attending courses or conferences.
- We will also strip away layers of regulation which neither assure quality nor enable excellence. As our chief executive, Antony Townsend, has put it, there will be a ‘bonfire of education and training regulations under way by the end of the year’. This will allow us to target our activities on the issues that really matter in protecting the public interest, rather than focusing on bureaucratic processes that do not.
The new system will allow for more flexibility and reduce unnecessary regulation, but it will not be a ‘soft’ option. On the contrary, it will bring to bear a greater focus on the quality and standards of those who we regulate to deliver legal services.
These proposals mean a radical move away from prescribing the educational ‘how’ to targeting our efforts on assuring standards of competence within a framework fit for modern legal practice. It is well worth reading the detailed statement.
We will undertake detailed consultation on all these initiatives, and plans for implementation will be finalised before the end of 2014.
As we develop our proposals, the BSB and the IPS – the other legal services regulators with whom we commissioned the Legal Education and Training Review in 2011 – will be looking at how they will be taking forward changes for their professions. It is clear that there will be areas of overlap and we will work closely with the other regulators of legal services to promote common approaches wherever these are appropriate.
I am also aware that many of you will have views on these proposals and we are keen to hear them. This is an ambitious programme of reform and it will provide the framework for legal education and training for many years to come. We are seeking views from all those who are likely to be affected by the changes because we need to consider in detail all the implications of what we are proposing.
There are several ways in which you can contribute your thoughts. Throughout November we will be organising a range of events around the country, when we will discuss the proposals and listen to views. You can find details of these on the new Training for Tomorrow microsite. This website also offers the opportunity to submit thoughts and views, as well as providing up-to-date details on the progress of the programme.
We are also happy to consider requests from local law societies which may want to organise their own forums to discuss the proposals.
When we were developing the introduction of outcomes-focused regulation and the new Handbook, members of the profession contributed a number of valuable observations, which enabled us to refine our proposals. I hope you will take the opportunity to do so again.
Charles Plant is chair of the SRA board