Working knowledge

The Solicitors Regulation Authority is monitoring closely the progress of the new work-based learning scheme for lawyers.
By Clare Gilligan

It is almost a year since a work-based learning pilot scheme was launched, introducing a new way in which aspiring solicitors can complete the final two years of their training.
If the scheme proves successful, work-based learning could go on to replace the two-year training contract that has been part of the solicitor qualification requirement for the past 15 years.

Around 100 candidates are taking part in the first stage of the pilot. The key difference with the new scheme is that it is outcomes based rather than time served, like the ­current training contract. Candidates are being assessed during their period of work-based learning against a set of outcomes, which covers the key skills they will need to practice as solicitors.

Some of the candidates are being assessed in-house by staff in their workplace. Others are being assessed outside their firm by an organisation appointed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). This is a key feature of the new scheme and the SRA hopes it will open up opportunities for Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduates who ­cannot find training contracts to have their experience recognised and to qualify as a solicitor.

This flexibility is seen as a key factor, both for the profession and for the candidates themselves, providing opportunities for individuals to tailor their training to their own needs and personal circumstances. By ensuring there is a robust and objective assessment prior to qualification, the SRA can be more flexible in the requirements it places on would-be solicitors.

Under the established training contract, trainees have to gain experience in at least three areas of law, and in contentious and non-contentious work. Work-based learning has the same requirements but also includes formal recording of learning, as well as an objective assessment against the work-based learning outcomes. This ensures a candidate’s competence in
areas such as the application of legal knowledge, relations with clients and ­professional ethics.

The SRA is monitoring progress very carefully and it is a case of ‘so far so good’ from employers and candidates. It is ­confident it can improve the quality and consistency of standards, and feedback so far is showing confidence to be well placed.

At a recent workshop held by the SRA, pilot participants talked about their experiences. In general, these were positive, but some areas for improvement were also ­identified, including more guidance from the SRA on assessing the outcomes and the need to ensure consistency of the assessment processes. The SRA is taking these on board and working hard to ensure that candidates, employers and members of the legal profession in general are kept informed about the progress of the project.

One of the views expressed by some ­people about work-based learning is that it could lead to two sets of standards operating and that this may disadvantage some ­solicitors. The SRA has commissioned an evaluation partner whose remit is to ensure that the work-based learning outcomes can be met consistently through a variety of asse1ssment methods.

It is absolutely key that the SRA demonstrates that work-based learning leads to one qualification with one set of clear ­outcomes that all who qualify achieve. It is not in the interest of clients or the ­profession to let a two-tier system ­develop and ahead of any implementation, the SRA will look closely at the pilot evaluation to make sure it is confident this will not happen.

Looking forward, this is potentially the biggest shake-up in qualification since the introduction of the LPC. The SRA is ­continually looking for feedback, as the more it involves the firms and the trainees the more it can learn. It is constantly ­gathering information that is helping to shape work-based learning for the future.

As the system is still being piloted, it is premature to say what will eventually be implemented, or when it will happen, although the SRA is looking at a phased introduction beginning no earlier than 2011.

In the meantime, the SRA is ­strengthening the current training ­contract arrangements, which will involve revising the guidance for training providers and trainees to make the transition to work-based ­learning smoother for ­everyone involved.

Clare Gilligan is head of education and training at the SRA