Are the current pathways to legal qualifications fit for purpose?
The Legal Education Training Review (LETR) was prompted by The Legal Services Board when its Chair advised the Association of Law Teachers in 2010 it was time for a comprehensive review of legal education. The LETR is jointly undertaken by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards. As part of the LETR the project team produce Discussion Papers, Briefing Papers and Reports. Here are some comments from me on the Discussion Paper 02/2012. Do you agree?
It is of concern that, from my supervision of trainee solicitors over the years, I have observed that the skills developed at undergraduate level are not fit for the purpose of creating a flexible and consumer focused practitioner. Perhaps some would argue that this is not the purpose of a qualifying law degree.
A qualifying law degree, of course, may be trying to fulfil an incompatible mixture of outcomes – such as satisfying the logical thinker, the liberal arts student, the entrepreneur and not just those seeking to embark on a legal career. I question whether it is possible to satisfy all these people given the changes to the practise of law; the introduction of alternative business structures offering legal services and the large numbers attending university.
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The practical study of the law should encompass how the law is made and where to find it; how to use it in particular areas of practice; how to explain it to those who have not studied it; how to make a living from it and how to defend the rule of law.
My observation of practising lawyers, of which I am one, is that, like all sectors, some of us have an interest in self-development and believe in lifelong learning (and so will be self-motivated to specialise and continue learning throughout their career) whilst some of us simply depend on the knowledge and skills attained as a graduate which makes those amongst us poorly placed to operate in a consumer driven and business change environment.
There is no current regulatory imperative to change or develop if a practitioner is in work because there is no re-assessment of skills and competence to deliver the practitioner’s chosen areas of work to obtain the practising certificate. There should be a commercial imperative, of course!
Those whose chosen area of work has suffered during downturns or recession are often forced to consider re-training, usually at their own expense, and without any real knowledge of what might be needed or the means to demonstrate their success or otherwise in moving across to a new discipline.
The solicitor’s brand therefore becomes tarnished if it cannot distinguish between aviation lawyers and people who draft Wills. By that I mean, some practitioners attempt the latter even though they have neither the skills nor the knowledge to do so and yet are badged as automatically competent because of qualifying as a solicitor at some point in the past.
Unregulated and ‘unqualified’ practitioners
As alternative arrangements have developed for the regulation of legal services the impact of unregulated individuals within the sector is at last being investigated. There is a need to recognise the contribution of the unregulated within the workforce and determine suitable qualifications for them in order to monitor the skill levels of service providers to the consumer.
Equally, greater thought is needed as to whether it is in the consumer interest to have unqualified practitioners providing consumer services directly instead of via a regulated entity and whether the unregulated may nevertheless need to be qualified in some way and to a certain level.
The number of paralegals, within both the regulated and unregulated sectors, is growing fast as they are generally cheaper workers. This is because too many law graduates are unable to fund further study and gain the LPC/BPTC and again too many LPC/BPTC graduates fail to obtain training contracts or pupillage.
Arguably the growth in employed personnel within the legal sector in the next five to ten years will be of the paralegal type so it is right that there should be some nationally recognised family of qualifications which the industry recognises and which affords a person stepping stones towards qualification at legal executive, solicitor and barrister level, should they so wish; or, at least demonstrates competence at particular levels along the way, even if the next stage is not attempted.
The way forward
If the qualifying law degree was no longer about the academic study of the law but the practice of law then the new practitioner law degree would cover many of the issues currently offered by the LPC, rendering it unnecessary. The sector specific detail which employers, and eventually practitioners, crave could be covered by modules studied in a variety of subjects across a range of levels from paralegal to expert. This would mean that it was a system geared to flexibility such that new areas of practice which emerged could be accommodated by new modules designed to the agreed standard. Practitioners would also have a clear and transparent method of re-training in a new sector simply by working their way upwards across modules of different levels of difficulty within a new subject.
There is a need to:
- Acknowledge the skills, competence and behaviours required to practice law.
- Be able to link this to personal development and the business plan of their employer or business.
- Help practitioners at all levels to achieve a happy marriage of current knowledge and expertise at all times in the chosen area of practice whilst being equipped to do so as far as clients are concerned.
- Provide learning and development opportunities from entry level to expert level which are open to all and which are underpinned by a family of linked qualifications.