Shaping up for tomorrow

Nothing is as certain as change and the challenge for the legal profession is how we are to prepare ourselves for the uncertainties of the future.

We live in a world in which solicitors are no longer guaranteed a job for life – and in which they no longer qualify once and for all time.

Solicitors and students alike need to remember that our future success depends upon increasing accessibility to law and justice and upon the benefits we bring to our clients.

The market for legal services is changing. Clients are more critical and discerning. Deregulation and technology present us with challenges but also with many opportunities.

Tomorrow's law firm will be optimistic and look for new opportunities. It will anticipate and take advantage of change – encouraging its people to develop new skills for a multiple of careers and different specialisations by lifelong learning.

Quality of service is the great business theme of the 1990s. Tomorrow's law firm will invest in the systems which assure quality. It will not buy the story that these systems consist only of bureaucratic banalities.

Above all, tomorrow's law firm will seek to create trust and reputation in its client community. It will do this by promoting the solicitors' distinctive competence of ethical practice. But it will not see this in any way as incompatible with managing itself in a competitive and businesslike way.

Social and economic change make it certain that the law of today will not be tomorrow's law. In this world of change there will be winners and losers. Today's students who wish to be tomorrow's winners must make four commitments: to lifelong learning; to treating the work place as a place of learning; to identifying and seizing opportunities; and to developing business and management skills and financial awareness.

Our profession's response to change can be seen in the on-going reshaping of education and training provision.

The graduate degree is no longer a passport to employment for life. Legal education in our law schools must lead to effectiveness in the world of work. But this can only be achieved by a partnership between education and business – in our case a partnership between the teaching institutions and the practising profession.

The legal education and business partnership can help with entry and recruitment. In a highly competitive world the profession needs, and cannot afford to exclude, the best people from diverse backgrounds. Good careers advice for students must be matched by fair and effective recruitment to ensure misconceptions and disappointments are avoided.

A great deal of publicity has been given to the Law Society's presidential policy of reducing numbers. This is blatantly protectionist as is only too obvious from the language with which the policy has been promoted. The underlying philosophy is that a shortage of solicitors will inevitably increase the incomes of those left in place. It is wholly unlikely that this agenda would be acceptable either to government or to clients.

The idea of pre-entry testing has been proposed. But again the protectionist agenda is not far away. It is suggested that such tests might have the desirable side-effect of reducing the numbers entering the profession. But to be lawful any provision in our training regulations must be justified as being necessary to educating and training solicitors. A test that was a back door device to limit numbers would be unlawful and would be struck down.

The president has disbanded his working party on entry. This is sensible given the true position. A person has a statutory right to be admitted as a solicitor once he or she demonstrates satisfactory compliance with the training regulations and satisfactory character and suitability. The Law Society has no power under the Solicitors Act to limit numbers embarking on training for reasons unconnected with educational standards.

However, it remains the case that achieving sustainable growth in legal services is as difficult as achieving such growth in any other sector of the economy. No education and business partnership should allow a market to develop trading in the unrealistic expectations of young people and their consequent disappointments.

Recent figures show that the number of training contracts available are holding up or even slightly increasing, while the number seeking to qualify is falling. I welcome this movement towards a better balance between the number of students starting out to becoming a solicitor and the number of actual places in the profession.

Overall the legal profession offers opportunities for talented young people. Not least of all so that they can displace those who are determined not to change or to respond to change.