Getting the measure of young lawyers

Today’s younger lawyers need to feel their career has clear direction and that they are guaranteed support in their professional progression. Reputation and loyalty alone are no longer enough to attract or retain employees, and law firms need to make a recognisable commitment to employees’ career development.

In Scotland, The Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet (The WS Society) is taking the initiative to help by creating an independent means to assess lawyers’ proficiency: The Signet Accreditation. Qualification as a solicitor in Scotland involves the triple completion of law degree, diploma in legal practice and traineeship. After qualifying, lawyers require 25 hours annually of continuing professional development (CPD) activity. There is no uniformly recognised professional standard or milestone by which lawyers, employers and clients may judge competence. There is a long gap between qualification and the ultimate goal of partnership.

Without objective standards and assessment, lawyers and law firms are reliant upon the long-held assumption that experience and reputation are the exclusive measures of competence. In the past, accreditation was seen as a means by which lawyers could market themselves to other lawyers and to the public as having specialist experience. Today this raises awkward questions as to whether such schemes operate more in the interests of lawyers rather than their clients.

The other traditional feature of accreditation is that it relates to an ‘expert’ level of competence. This means that, typically, more experienced and senior lawyers are accredited. This does nothing to help lawyers in the formative years of their careers, nor is it necessarily of assistance to clients.

In Australia, legal specialist accreditation schemes based on external, independent assessment have been in operation for the past 15 years. These mature schemes are based on the successful completion of an assessment programme prepared by solicitors who are acknowledged leaders in their field of practice. However, these schemes recognise the specialist skills of the established expert, rather than providing a specific point towards which a lawyer entering the profession can direct their career.

The Signet Accreditation takes the approach of using specialist accreditation as a career development tool, as well as a quality standard in service delivery. Lawyers in Scotland will be eligible if they have a minimum of three years PQE in an accredited area of practice. Each applicant will undertake a three-fold assessment programme, prepared by practising solicitors, which confirms their proficiency in their practice area. Assessment material will be developed from examples of real legal work, establishing defined levels of proficiency in technical knowledge and skill, client-focused skills, administrative and business skills, and ethical integrity.

The design of The Signet Accreditation draws on the established Australian models, where critical competency is identified through a practical examination and assessment. But the use of accreditation as a professional development standard, a mid-career milestone for younger lawyers, is new. The plan is for the first intake of candidates for The Signet Accreditation to be examined in 2007.

Feedback from law firms and legal professions has already indicated Scottish lawyers would benefit from a career milestone after post qualification. The Signet Accreditation aims to achieve a certified standard recognised by the profession and the public as a mark of independently assessed proficiency. Firms will benefit as it will offer a standardised, practical based qualification. For the individual, the scheme offers an improvement in service delivery to clients by helping consumers to recognise lawyers and law firms with specialist advisory skills.

The key objective of The Signet Accreditation is to create an incentive and opportunity for lawyers and law firms to become better at what they do. By recognising where their proficiencies lie and where their practitioners need to improve, firms can guarantee the quality of the skills they offer.