The review of legal services education is of paramount importance if UK lawyers are to be competitive in today’s global marketplace. Nigel Savage reflects on its late showing and the potential outcomes
In November the three biggest legal regulators – the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and the Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards (IPS) – announced a joint review of legal services education and training in the regulated sector.
The main aims of the review, as set out by the regulators, are to ensure that the ethical standards and levels of competence of those delivering legal services in regulated law firms are sufficient to ensure a high standard of service for clients, and to support the public interest and rule of law.
The review will examine the educational requirements placed on individuals entering the legal sector, the need for continuing education and the requirements placed on training providers.
It will ask a number of questions, including: how should legal education and training contribute to the delivery of the regulatory objectives set out in the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA), taking into account issues such as changing consumer demand, ethics, diversity, quality, technology and forthcoming changes to the education sector?
The review also looks at how implementation of the LSA might affect legal education, to what extent the regulation of legal education should be extended to other groups such as paralegals, and what should be done to address the issue of career development and mobility between branches of the legal profession.
The regulators plan to appoint an external research team in February and the review will begin in early April, with an end date of November 2012.
This review should have taken place as soon as the SRA and BSB were created more than three years ago. The result is that we are less than a year away from implementation of the most radical change to legal services in recent history – the introduction of alternative business structures (ABSs) – and we are only now embarking on a review of the education and training framework that will support those changes.
Unless the regulators act quickly, the market and the world will pass them by. Those with long memories will recall the ill-fated Law Society Training Framework Review, which blighted legal education for several years before running into the sand.
External investors in the legal services market will already have a perspective on their workforce requirements, in much the same way as Specsavers did when the optical services market opened up.
It was precisely these market needs that were central to a paper calling for radical changes to legal education published by policy think tank the Legal Services Institute (LSI) just days after the review was announced. Among the recommendations put forward by the LSI were the regulation of the Qualifying Law Degree to ensure that it better prepares students for vocational legal training and the abolition of the training contract.
It is vital that consideration of the role and function of the Joint Academic Stage Board (JASB), a joint committee of the BSB and SRA that sets policies relating to the academic stage of legal training, is integrated into the review. The JASB needs to provide more leadership to the sector and be proactive in restoring the credibility of the law degree.
An up-to-date LLB
Many traditional undergraduate LLB law degrees have become increasingly divorced from the profession and do not focus on society’s need for lawyers able to solve clients’ problems. As things stand, currently the drive to restore the LLB’s credibility looks set to come from the marketplace and those law schools that respond to a post-Browne Review agenda.
There will be new providers of full-time degrees that respond to the requirements of the legal services market, and some of us – public or private sector – do not need to await the outcome of the review to implement those changes. For example, the College of Law recently announced the launch of a two-year LLB from September 2012, which is grounded on rigorous practice-based learning designed to prepare students for the modern world of law and boost their employment prospects and professional legal skills.
The exciting prospect ahead is responding to global issues. We in education need to build on the huge success of the UK’s law firms and bar in global markets. It will be a great mistake if the education and training review fails to take this into account.
Brit for purpose
The New York State Bar Exam is already the global qualification of choice and the announcement by the American Bar Association that it is looking at accrediting overseas law schools is a real threat to the future of the English qualification. Students and major employers have a choice as to which jurisdictions they qualify under and where they deliver services. If we ignore that then we lose competitiveness.
Nigel Savage is chief executive at the College of Law