The Law Society has warned that allowing people to enter the profession without a degree-level qualification will adversely affect clients and dilute professional standards.
In its response to a consultation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority on a proposed ‘super-exam’ for all would-be solicitors, Chancery Lane urges the regulator to make entry routes into the profession clearer so the best candidates can get in ‘regardless of background’.
The Society also criticises the SRA for making ‘piecemeal’ announcements on training reform and not providing enough detail.
The SRA controversially proposed last December that a centralised Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) should replace existing entry routes. Chancery Lane said it backs centralised assessment ‘provided that the level is set appropriately’.
But president Jonathan Smithers said it is critical that standards are not diluted, as this would damage the standing of solicitors at home and abroad.
He said: ‘It would also not be in the interests of clients who buy legal services to have a poorer standard of service, as access to expert legal advice underpins the justice system and is a cornerstone of our society.
‘We are not convinced the SRA’s plans will result in standards being maintained and we know that many in the profession feel the same way. ‘
To ensure the best people can join the solicitor profession irrespective of background, or the pathways taken to qualification, the different routes into the profession need to be ‘absolutely clear’.
Smithers said: ‘The SRA maintains that its proposals will increase access to the profession, but it admits that this would only be the case if legal education and training providers develop training courses that are cheaper and more flexible than the current qualifying law degree and Legal Practice Course (LPC).
‘Our concern is that the SRA’s consultation contains disappointingly little detail on the proposed assessments,’ he added, calling on the SRA to supply evidence that the new entry route would be cheaper.
While the SRA has said its assessments will be at degree level, there would be no requirement for an underpinning degree-level course - such as the law degree, CILEx or apprenticeship courses. It has also mooted dropping the requirement for a period of work-based training.
Smithers said the removal of quality indicators - a degree-level qualification, the LPC and work-based training - will jeopardise the international standing of the solicitor qualification.
He added: ‘The period of on-the-job training prior to qualification is important for the reputation of the solicitor qualification both nationally and internationally, where our academic requirements are already viewed as “light touch” due to the relative brevity of the university education.’
The SRA has said it is likely some form of pre-qualification work experience will be required. But the Society noted the regulator has not fully committed to this and has yet to discuss what it might entail.
Smithers said: ‘The Law Society believes work-based learning is essential and must take place in a legal environment, under the supervision of a solicitor, for a substantial period of two years.
‘The SRA is making piecemeal announcements to the profession on its proposals. This is unhelpful and causing grave concern. We want to see the detail of all the proposals so that they can be robustly scrutinised and their full implications considered, ensuring the stated aims are met.’
Ahead of a government consultation on reforming the 2007 Legal Services Act, meanwhile, the Society called earlier this week for powers to set entry standards and to award the title of solicitor to be returned to the professional body at Chancery Lane.