When the president of the Law Society rails against a Conservative government times must be hard. The generation of income, it seems, is squeezed on all sides.
In the present climate it is essential to use resources efficiently and one resource vital to any organisation is its staff.
The greater the importance of the resource, the greater is the potential risk to the organisation. Selection procedures still depend upon academic qualifications, references and interviews. The temperamental, the incompetent and the unreliable still slip through.
Choice, in this context, does not necessarily make matters easier. The pressure for training contract places among those who have just finished the academic and vocational stages of their education increases the difficulty of selection. Desperation on the part of the applicant (and its impact on his friends and supporters) distorts the selection process.
'Staff' in the legal profession is often taken to mean those who are admitted as solicitors. Other workers in the field are often not given serious consideration. There are exceptions to this but generally their visibility is in direct proportion to their immediate fee earning capacity.
Such an attitude ignores a body of ideas and experience (widely shared by the rest of commercial humanity) which suggests that the proper development of the workforce is one of the keys to quality and profit. The development of existing staff avoids the risks of the recruitment process and addresses the issue of developing the whole workforce.
This does not require a radical initiative by employers. The structures for staff development and progression already exist. What is needed is a change of attitude.
Most practitioners have heard of the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex). Many may have an idea of its purpose. Some may see it as an alternative route to professional qualification.
In fact the institute has been addressing the problems of staff development, career structure, and the proper validation of relevant qualifications for more than 30 years.
The institute's qualifications are based on the need for both academic achievement and practical experience. The scheme of education and training is comprehensive. It caters for all levels of staff and addresses their needs at whatever point they approach the profession. It is specifically designed for part-time study and is intended for those who work (or wish to work) in the profession.
The school leaver may begin with four GCSEs. At the other end of the scale the law graduate can avoid the scramble for a training contract altogether by qualifying as a Fellow of the Institute and then continuing along the route to qualification as a solicitor.
Non-law graduates qualify as members by passing examinations in law and practice at two levels. The first stage is of A-level standard and takes a broad approach. The second level reaches degree standard and requires some specialisation. Students take three law papers and one practice paper which relate to specific areas of practice, such as litigation or probate.
Law graduates qualify as members by taking and passing practice papers only – two at part one and one at part two.
Membership of the Institute is attained by passing examinations which usually takes four years. Fellowship requires that members serve five years in qualifying employment – that is working for a solicitor or fellow of the institute.
There is an established route by which fellows can qualify as solicitors. Ilex part two examination passes in law qualify for exemption from the CPE on a subject by subject basis.
Non-law graduate fellows who wish to qualify as solicitors then need to gain exemption from all the CPE heads by taking further Ilex part two examinations in appropriate subjects. Law graduates are usually exempt from the CPE by reason of their degree. Fellows then need to take a recognised legal practice and professional skills course.
Employers have the benefit of staff who are experienced in the practice of the law and who are known, either personally, or at least to other practitioners. For those who seek a career in the law, this is a way forward.
A staff which is trained to its proper level, and has a real chance to progress, so that it can realise its full potential, might just be better equipped to survive in a harsh competitive environment. Such a workforce may have good reason to see that its interests and the firm's really do have something in common.