19 September 2011
Legal education needs to be in tune with a rapidly changing profession. Sarah Hutchinson looks at what the future holds for
When I consider how training to become a lawyer has changed since I qualified as a solicitor more than 20 years ago, two key themes stand out.
First, one size does not fit all any more. Second, training to become a lawyer is no longer simply about learning the law.
Increasingly law students and firms are demanding flexibility in the way training is delivered, whether this means choice over where, when, how and how long they study, or the provision of tailored routes through courses to help students hit the ground running when they enter the workplace.
It is no longer enough to offer a standard version of a programme such as the LPC and expect all students to fit into that model. Law schools need to adapt to meet the needs of their clients, be they students or firms.
By way of example, the College of Law (CoL) offers three distinct routes through the LPC tailored towards corporate law, commercial and private practice and the legal aid sector, as well as bespoke programmes for a variety of law firm clients. Students also have the choice of studying full-time over seven or 10 months, part-time over 16 months or two years, or via a supervised online mode of e-learning.
With so much innovation and flexibility coming to the fore on the professional stage of training, it seems astounding that we still have such a rigid apprenticeship system in place as the two-year training contract.
This has its origins in the 19th century, when apprenticeship as an articled clerk represented the totality of training and there was no formal legal education. This is of little value in the modern world of law.
This does not mean that new lawyers should go without supervision and training on the job; but the idea that everyone, no matter what their skill set and training needs, should be subject to the same template is outdated. It is not in the interest of the profession and creates problems in an increasingly global legal market - no other jurisdiction has a similar scheme.
Should the UK legal profession instead be moving towards a new kind of apprenticeship route to qualification that helps address the social diversity issues thrown up by the university tuition fee rises? Spending three years at university and then one or two years in vocational training before entering the workplace will be unsustainable for a large number of students. The legal industry risks missing out on a huge pool of talent unless it starts to think differently about its recruitment practices.
Accounting for taste
The new KPMG model provides an interesting example. Students are recruited after A-levels and study for an accountancy degree and then professional qualifications while working for a firm. As recruits achieve the same level of academic and vocational qualifications as under the traditional model, quality will not be diluted. Is this a route the legal profession could adopt?
Whatever the shape of legal education in the future, one aspect will remain constant: law schools must deliver far more than just the teaching of black letter law. In today’s market it is no longer enough to be a good technical lawyer. Instead,contemporary legal practice needs individuals who can think in terms of providing solutions to clients’ problems.
Students therefore need to learn how to apply their legal knowledge and must develop wider business awareness to give them insight into the world in which their clients operate as well as the commercial realities of their own firms. Legal training courses must equip students with skills ranging from business development, teamworking and project management to leadership and the management of risk and finances.
The CoL is making professional and business skills training a central feature of its undergraduate law degree, which launches next year.
Legal education providers cannot ignore the increasingly global nature of commercial law. Most UK-qualified lawyers of the next generation will participate at some point in cross-border transactions. This raises questions about how to prepare that generation for practice and increase knowledge of the legal, ethical and practical issues at play in international work.
Could it be time for the Solicitors Regulation Authority to integrate the global perspective into the LPC?
As we await the introduction of alternative business structures next month and prepare for the changes to our profession heralded by the Legal Services Act, it is vital to ensure that the next generation of lawyers is adequately prepared for the modern world of law.
Sarah Hutchinson is the board member for business development at the CoL