Your flexible friend

Law firms and trainees would both benefit if the Law Society Council’s recommendation concerning injecting flexibility into training is taken up, writes Scott Slorach

The Law Society Council has agreed, after five years of the Training Framework Review (TFR), that training up to the point of qualification should be more flexible. Such a regime could allow the integration of legal practice and professional skills courses with the training contract. But would a flexible integrated training regime work and, more importantly, would it produce better-qualified lawyers?
Let us look at a number of common assertions made on the subject of learning:

  • You learn best on the job. On the whole, this is true, but it often involves trial and error, and error is not a word that lawyers enjoy. A combination of basic instruction in a safe environment coupled with on-the-job experience is a better approach.
  • You learn best when you are motivated. True. Many LPC students see the current course as a hurdle to starting life in the real world. They therefore view it as a course leading to an assessment to be passed, rather than as a means of developing useful legal knowledge and skills.
  • You learn best in a context relevant to you. Research has shown that students are most motivated by, and retain more learning from, training that is set in contexts relevant to them.
  • You retain more learning when you have an opportunity to employ your knowledge shortly after acquiring it. True. On the LPC, we often see students struggling to employ contract law in the context of legal drafting, as it may have been up to three years since they studied the subject.

Taking the above into account, an integrated training programme could provide better learning. If designed well, so that it is integrated properly with relevant on-the-job opportunities, it would allow students to combine formal instruction in relevant contexts with the ability to put their learning into practice shortly afterwards.

The next question is whether it would work in practice for both students and firms. I have looked at potential structures for individual firms, consortia and legal markets, and am confident that it would. There is an existing starting point in that the LPC can already be delivered in various contextual forms, as seen by the College of Law’s LPC routes, which range from public legal services to firm-specific. Greater flexibility, post-TFR, in making routes even more firm or market-focused, would allow LPC providers to ensure that trainees were learning knowledge and skills that they could employ readily. Given the ability to provide learning in context, what about the question of timing?
The current LPC is comparatively rigid in that a short foundation course is followed by three compulsory subjects of business, litigation and property, followed by three elective subjects chosen from a range of practice areas. These are studied over one academic year, or two years if studying part time. An integrated training regime would still require a foundation programme. This would need to be longer to ensure that trainees have the basic knowledge and skills required for fee-earning, and would also have to include a working knowledge of professional conduct issues. Thereafter, the most effective approach would be for trainees to learn through a combination of ‘block’ (pre-training seat) and ‘drip-feed’ (during training seat) modules. To provide flexibility for firms, markets and trainees, the subjects would not be given the current ‘compulsory’ and ‘elective’ tags. This approach would allow a trainee working at a publicly funded firm to study civil and criminal litigation as a block and then advanced criminal litigation during their related training seat. A major City firm might develop its own foundation programme, including a large element of business law and practice. A trainee would then take a mixture of corporate electives and the remaining compulsory subjects in block and drip-feed basis as appropriate to the practice groups in which their training seats were located.

This modular approach would not only facilitate flexibility within firms, but could also provide a means by which trainees could earn and learn. This could be enhanced by the use of quality e-learning products, such as webcast i-tutorials. These give trainees more opportunities as to where and when they study. In addition, they allow LPC providers and firms to have more flexibility as regards the timing of modules offered.

Such changes to the training regime, as described above, carry with them a need to change attitudes and approaches. Firms would have to be prepared to accept that trainees would be spending more time on training than they presently do during their training contract. Organisation of seat changes and work allocation would have to take this into account. This is something that the accountancy profession already operates. A new training regime of this type could also mean a lengthening of the training contract period. The goal of any such regime would therefore be to develop trainees who would be more quickly and better able to contribute to the profitability of firms.

One area where attitudes would not change is that of standards. No one would want greater flexibility at the cost of lower standards. While future training might be more modular and include more distance or e-learning components, there should at least be the same rigour as at present. There is a difference between intensive training and cramming: the former may, when integrated with learning on the job, reap dividends, while the latter reduces retention. The Law Society will not only have to continue to set the outcomes required, but will also have to address standards and formats, which may include new forms of assessment and notional study hours, which form the basis of the general higher education qualification system. It will have to ensure equivalence in standards and rigour between what might be a variety of routes to qualification.

Flexible integrated training programmes have the potential to produce better lawyers: the challenge is now for the Law Society, LPC providers and the profession as a whole to take the opportunities offered by the TFR to develop these programmes.
Scott Slorach is a director of the legal practice course at the College of Law