Every day solicitors oil the wheels of justice and business in our country. The contribution legal services make to the UK economy cannot be overstated – and the Law Society works hard to ensure this is never taken for granted. For every 1% of growth in the UK legal services sector, 8,000 new jobs are created and £379m is added to UK plc. Each £1 of extra turnover in the sector stimulates £1.39 in the rest of the economy.
We are outspoken about the benefits solicitors bring to business and commercial transactions. So, as the fifth stage of talks on Brexit starts today in Brussels, we are once again calling on the government to establish a clear vision of the future of the UK services industry as a matter of priority during the negotiations.
Promoting England and Wales as the jurisdiction of choice has never been more important, and maintaining an effective legal framework to support cross-border business is key to this. Our legal system is respected the world over, in part because of the reliance on the law of England and Wales in international transactions. For business and foreign law firms, the English and Welsh legal system is one of the world’s most supportive. Not only does our jurisdiction allow virtually unrestricted access, English law is commonly used in international commerce as the standard in contracts, as it offers certainty, stability and predictability.
It is no surprise then that dual qualification is becoming increasingly sought after among our foreign counterparts. The England and Wales legal profession is relatively open to international lawyers seeking to qualify as a solicitor. It does not impose restrictions to admission on grounds of nationality or residence. The requirement is that a candidate’s home jurisdiction is recognised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and that they are a qualified lawyer as defined by the SRA.
The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) allows those who are already qualified lawyers in other jurisdictions to be admitted as solicitors in England and Wales. This opportunity is highly attractive, given England and Wales’ position as an international centre for dispute resolution. Around 80% of cases in the Commercial Court have at least one party from abroad and around 50% of the cases have no connection to England and Wales, except that the parties have chosen to resolve their disputes in England and Wales.
The QLTS route to qualification in England and Wales is selected by about 20% of new entrants to the profession, broadening career opportunities and enhancing the global reputation of (and reliance upon) the laws of England and Wales in international transactions and dispute resolution.
With the SRA advancing its deregulation agenda it is clearly distancing itself from its traditional role as the guardian of standards. The Law Society is stepping forward to fill the gap. We hold the view that to drive professional standards, the responsibility for those standards needs to be owned and driven by the profession, as does entry into the profession.
Since 2015, the Law Society has meticulously examined the proposals being developed by the SRA to change the way solicitors qualify. The rationale for the new qualifying system is that a lawyer’s competence is more important than the route they took to acquire it. The existing requirement for a law degree or to take the Common Professional Examination is to be replaced by the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). Over the past two years, a large number of our recommendations have been taken on board by the SRA – and the Law Society has firmly established itself as a thought leader on standards in education and training. One of our main concerns throughout the consultation has been the impact the changes could have on the international reputation of solicitors and the UK as a global centre of legal excellence. With just 30 months to go before the biggest revamp of legal education in more than two decades, we are continuing to review details of the SQE as they emerge to ensure the reputation of the profession is protected.
Our work in this area has revealed a clear appetite from members for the Society to adopt a leadership role in education and learning. We asked solicitors and other representatives from the sector how the Society could better support members with their professional development now it is competency-based. Our consultation with the profession revealed a desire for enhanced support from the Law Society for members’ education and learning needs – and this has led to the creation of a new education strategy for the Law Society.
Today, we are announcing two initiatives in education and training. These constitute the outcome of deliberations on the impact of a range of published papers and consultations, not least the Law Society’s Future of Legal Services report published in January 2016.
We have entered an arrangement with the UK subsidiary of BARBRI – a US-based legal training provider – in respect of the QLTS, and a memorandum of association with the College of Law in Australia and New Zealand. These initiatives will contribute to addressing some of the strategic factors impacting on the legal services sector that we analysed in our ‘Futures’ report.
Whether it be globalisation, technology and process innovation, buyer behaviours, or the regulatory environment, there is no escaping the impact of these forces. And, if that was not enough to occupy our minds, since that report we can add Brexit, the crystallisation of the SRA’s policy on education and the uncertain outcome of an unexpected general election.
While we can take some comfort from the fact that the same policy factors are impacting equally on every individual and organisation around the world whatever the sector, that is no reason for us not to provide leadership and guidance to our members on how to confront and manage change.
The Industrial Revolution largely gave birth to the expansion of the solicitors’ profession in oiling the wheels of domestic and global trade. There is no reason why, properly equipped with appropriate skills and retaining our core values, solicitors cannot play a similar role in assisting the public and business to confront the contemporary revolution enshrined in the so-called ‘perfect storm’.
At the core of our emerging strategy must be the pervasive influence of structured education, training and learning, both in terms of provoking debate on identifying needs and solutions and also facilitating the best provision. We are not talking about harking back 30 years to the days when the Society owned and controlled the College of Law, but rather ensuring that we use our ‘brand’, resources and influence to ensure that our members and aspiring members have access to a range of programmes available to meet their needs according to their resources. That is so whether they be sole practitioners operating in the ‘gig’ economy or magic circle firms operating globally.
We are calling, once again, on the government to establish a clear vision of the future of the UK services industry as a matter of priority during the negotiations
In recent months, we have been testing out our emerging strategic approach both within the Society and externally, and identifying the most appropriate partners against very clear and qualitative criteria. In addition to providing focused thought leadership, we are aiming at facilitating the provision of structured programmes on leadership and management, acknowledging specialisation post-qualification and expanding our support for aspiring members to gain appropriate work experience and cost-effective preparation for the emerging qualification regime. We will also be seeking to facilitate this provision so that our member firms can unlock access to their own training levy funds to mitigate the cost of provision.
The strategy is as much about preserving the gains that our members have made in markets as it is about confronting new issues. Indeed, that is the rationale behind today’s announcement. Brexit has brought into sharp focus the role our members play in global markets and the opportunities that global treaties play in opening access to new markets. We cannot afford to be complacent in this area. If we lose ground in terms of the diminishing influence of solicitors in global markets, we may also lose the pervasive influence of English law in global transactions and dispute resolution. In the post-Brexit era, Asia Pacific will be a key focus for our member firms – hence the memorandum of understanding with the college in Australia.
Over 6,500 of our members practise outside the domestic jurisdiction and 20% of all admissions to the roll are via the QLTS. It is therefore crucial that, not only in our own interests but in terms of the rule of law, our profession remains and becomes more accessible to other lawyers in developing jurisdictions. The introduction of the SQE will further enhance access to our profession and it is vital that we take the opportunity to work with the best to test new ideas in learning methodology – hence the arrangement with BARBRI. Both organisations have a rich heritage of over 50 years in preparing candidates for professional examination and professional competence beyond qualification. They have both led the way in embracing technology in learning, and in the case of the college have a successful range of Applied LLM programmes in all core practice areas.
Our object is to enhance the quality of training for existing members and potential members and over the next few months we will be developing further associations and partnerships to enhance the membership offering across key areas of activity. We welcome a continuing dialogue with members and other stakeholders on each iteration of our strategy.
Peter Liver is the Law Society’s executive director of membership services