SRA training pilots fail to appease market

SRA training pilots fail to appease market‘Training contracts to face abolition from Law Soc’ was the headline run by The Lawyer’s student magazine Lawyer 2B in summer 2004. So you would be forgiven for ­thinking we have been here before.

Regulators are notorious for their slow decision-making but when it comes to overhauling legal training the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is, frankly, taking the biscuit.

The new solicitors training regime will not be rolled out until September 2011 – more than a decade after the process was kickstarted by the Law Society with the Training Framework Review.

Much of the graduate recruitment ­community and Legal Practice Certificate (LPC) providers were hoping that the SRA’s announcement of the long-awaited work-based pilot, first reported on TheLawyer.com (12 September), would clarify many unanswered ­questions.

Instead, as one comment poster on TheLawyer.com puts it, the proposal just confuses matters and will arguably create a two-tier ­system, something that the regulator ­flatly rejects.

Indeed, even Tim Pierce, development manager at SRA training and education, admitted that the pilot will only be an “experiment” so we still cannot predict what will happen in 2011.

The regulator is piloting two separate models, each lasting two years. The first, which is expected to generate the most controversy, enables paralegals to qualify as solicitors while working in their current roles. The paralegals will take ­responsibility for their own training and development and will be assessed ­externally by Nottingham Law School, meaning the duties of their employers will be much lighter.

The second model being piloted will work similarly to the training contract, but qualification as a solicitor will no longer be automatic, with trainees being subject to more rigorous assessment criteria. Firms participating in the pilot include Beachcroft, Freeth Cartwright, Jones Day and Linklaters.

Candidates qualifying under both regimes will be required to compile a ­portfolio of their work. This could include contracts and letters of advice they have drafted as well as video footage of them leading a negotiation. The aim of the ­portfolios is to ensure the candidates are competent in areas such as ­communication and time-keeping.

One of the biggest questions yet to be answered by the SRA is how either of the work-based learning structures will fit in with the new-look LPC. From September 2009 students will in theory be permitted to complete the LPC in two stages, ­meaning that they can start their training contracts six months early. However, whether or not this is still the case and what impact it will have on the length of time it will take to qualify remains unclear.

Radical change is welcome, but it is not clear whether either of the pilots address the real issues facing aspiring lawyers, such as the expense of qualifying and other barriers that make entry into the legal profession difficult.

Indeed, both versions have flaws. The most radical model is unlikely to win the backing from the large City firms and will arguably create a two-tier system. The ­second, meanwhile, offers little hope for those candidates who are struggling to meet the cost of qualification. Whatever happens, the changes will spell an end to the training contract as we know it.