The entire process of becoming a lawyer is time sensitive. Students progress through university and law school, taking exams in their due turn. Law firms hunt for new talent and offer jobs two years in advance. Trainees wheel through the rotation of seats and eventually apply for newly-qualified jobs. As the seasons turn so does the cycle of qualification that is now in disarray. There is a coronavirus-shaped kink in the hose of legal talent looking to enter the industry. Here are the big issues.

How can students be taught for the rest of the academic year?

At first this might seem the simple part: just switch to online teaching, dummy. But actually it is easier said than done and universities are taking different approaches.

“It is a lot of work to start delivering your teaching online, especially if you are starting from scratch,” says one academic. “Everyone has to get competent with the tech, for starters.”

“Some years ago we embarked on a big project to make better use of online learning, so when it came to switching online we had some preparation,” says London South Bank University’s head of law, Professor Andy Unger. “But it is one thing to do online teaching as a little supplement to your other teaching, and quite another thing to do it for everything and everyone.”

Institutions like the University of Law, well-versed in distance learning, have stepped up to the plate when it comes to online classes, but not every uni is yet up to speed.

The Lawyer has already spoken to students in a state of confusion about what is going on at their place of study. One third-year law student who is studying at Plymouth said: “We’ve had four or five emails since we were told classes would be closed; the problem is they all say the same thing and there isn’t any practical advice. I had meetings booked with my lecturer but that’s been cancelled and nobody has been in contact to tell me how best to proceed.”

“And what about the people on my course who have dependents, kids or elderly parents? They haven’t been offered any support. We’ve got six weeks left of the course, but everything has just stopped and we are not being told what is going to happen.”

How can undergraduate students on the qualifying law degree be assessed if exams are cancelled?

This is the very question that a number of academic institutions have put to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The qualifying law degree is the ‘passport’ that allows you to take the LPC, so passing these undergraduate exams is of significance for those wanting to go on and qualify as a solicitor. If exams covering key areas of legal knowledge are skipped, could students be banned from progressing to the LPC?

Some providers have already asked the SRA for permission to change their approach to assessments. Here is the SRA’s response last week, courtesy of the academic Steven Vaughan’s excellent blog on the subject.

While the Academic Stage Handbook does not specify the form that assessments should take, or require them to be taken under supervised conditions, we do require some form of assessment for Foundation of Legal Knowledge (FLK) subjects and providers should not cancel assessments altogether. An assessment is vital to helping us ensure the integrity of professional qualifications and through this, appropriate consumer protection.

However, we recognise that some providers may want to be more flexible in their approach to assessment during this time and so online, open book, remote assessments are all permitted.  In the event of any changes to the assessment approach, we would also expect course providers to consider the risks around assessments that are unsupervised, for example, how they can be assured that the work being assessed is that of the candidates.

We are also content if you wish to postpone assessment of subjects into later academic years, so that by the time your students graduate they have been properly assessed in all FLK subjects.

While we do not approve your assessment approach, please notify us of any changes that you make to how you intend to assess candidates for FLK subjects.

A later update restates that approach: “There must be some assessment for Foundation of Legal Knowledge (FLK) subjects. We do not specify the form it needs to take, but an assessment is required. For example, online, open book or remote assessments.

“We are also content if you wish to postpone assessment of subjects into later academic years.  However, by the time your students graduate, they must be properly assessed in all FLK subjects.”

Vaughan argues there is little harm in not requiring undergraduates to sit exams for one or two foundation subjects, given that it is a moment of national emergency, and that students will have to prove themselves many more times during the LPC and training contract before qualifying. That, however, will require the SRA to relax its rules.

At the moment, Vaughan says, the SRA’s response goes against its stated reform programme, which is all about allowing universities to teach what they like at undergraduate level in the confidence that its centralised SQE assessments later on in the process will make sure all new lawyers are up to the same high standard.

Citing his colleague Ronan McCrea, Vaughan says: “Much of the public policy and social reaction to COVID-19 has been bedevilled by a failure to realise that we are in an exceptional situation and by good faith but misguided attempts to continue with something close to business as usual” and expresses his concern that the SRA may be falling into the same trap.

Meanwhile, “the universities and law departments are talking to each other and there are a range of responses in terms of what they are doing,” says Unger. “Some are saying students can progress to the next year; others are holding alternative assessments.”

LSBU has gone down the road of alternative assessment, “because we feel we are not doing anyone any favours if we postpone or waive exams,” Unger says. “If you are a final-year student, you don’t want to be the cohort that graduated without having to do anything. Equally, if you are a first or second-year, it is not ideal not to have gone through the process of consolidating your knowledge by preparing for a final assessment. But there is a lot of disagreement between law schools and universities.”

Where LSBU has got unseen exams, it is moving to coursework: “We call them take-home exams. We are happy that is all right both for the graduating year and for first and second-years. The only other exam problem is in the first year we use multiple choice tests as part of the exam assessment: we will move those online and are working on setting them up through Moodle so people can do them in a window.”

He adds: “For the presentations, we have been using Microsoft Teams. For some of those live assessments we might allow students to record and upload their presentations.”

How will students currently on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) begin their training contracts in September?

The SRA requires face-to-face assessment for the LPC. That’s currently impossible and initially exams were postponed until autumn 2020.

However, following backlash from students, law schools and law firms, the SRA has relented and LPC students will be allowed to take their exams.

On 25 March, it said: “We have decided to allow a particular form of remote assessment invigilation called proctoring, and to consider other proposed approaches on case by case basis. That should remove uncertainty and help the vast majority of people to complete their studies and pursue their careers. Many have training contracts due to start in September – our approach will enable law firms to continue as planned.”

Proctored exams are timed exams that students take while software monitors their computer’s desktop, webcam video and audio.

For skills assessments and elective subjects, the SRA has decreed LPC providers may make alternative assessment arrangements.

For the core LPC subjects, it states: “We will maintain our requirements for supervised assessment, but we will consider applications for online or remote proctoring of supervised assessments.”

“LPC providers must apply to us for approval before making any changes to assessments. We will consider changes to our current requirements on a provider by provider basis. Approval will be subject to review by us at any stage.”

What happens to the implementation of the Solicitors Qualification Exam?

The first raft of students to sit the new Solicitors Qualification Exam are supposed to do so in 2021. There is, however, a long transition period – 11 years – so law schools don’t need to be in a rush to develop new SQE-ready courses.

“There may be a clamour for postponement,” remarks one law school lecturer, “but that will be because people don’t like the SQE, not because of the coronavirus.”

How can trainees be supervised in virtual departments?

The coronavirus crisis really started to bite just as many trainees were wandering into new departments as part of the seat rotation system by which nearly every law firm abides. Crucially, this added an extra dimension for law firms to consider, on top of already-existing practical difficulties.

Many trainees had only just met members of their new teams before they were being sent home to start work in new and untested virtual departments. This, therefore, places a huge amount of renewed responsibility on associates and partners to ensure that lines of communication remain strong.

Some firms have called on supervisors to speak at least twice a day with trainees; however, some are already failing to achieve this and we’re only in week two. It’s also vital trainees feel confident enough to speak up when voicing concerns – but this is easier said than done when you’re desperate to land your dream job. “It must be incumbent on partners to set the cultural tone to share things on a group call,” says Shearman & Sterling partner James Webber.

For these virtual departments to operate in a meaningful manner, tech-savvy trainees are not the concern. It is technically challenged supervisors who must ensure that they are up to speed.

Will the disruption wipe out meaningful learning in trainees’ current seats?

Some trainees are fearful that their current seats may not be as valuable given the current uncertainty. One working at a top 10 firm, and now in her third and favoured seat, feels at a disadvantage compared to her predecessors: “It’s a bit disheartening going up against people who have had a full six months in the department. I was in the seat for just a few weeks before we all had to work from home.”

The question for many will be, ‘How can I impress without being in the office?’ “You have to be a lot more proactive,” says the same trainee. “You have to remind people that you’re around and be a bit keen. Sometimes you feel a bit desperate, but you have to show that you’re keen if you want to join a specific department.”

This sense of ownership is also shared by a trainee at RPC, who now emails his supervisors every morning to check in. “There has to be a sense of responsibility for the trainee as well,” says Joe Akwaboa, who has recently started his fourth seat in insolvency and restructuring.

Firms are adamant that the quality of work being passed down will continue to be the same as ever, although it’s clear that trainees are still in an experimental period. RPC’s training principal Simon Hart recognises the firm is still grappling with this issue. “We recognise that trainees do a lot of day to day physical tasks,” he says. “Therefore, it’s very much a responsibility on the supervisors to push work down to their trainees. We are still working out how to do that.”

The SRA says there is no maximum amount of time a trainee can be supervised remotely: “As long as firms put in place sensible arrangements for supervisors to review trainees’ work remotely, an extended period of remote supervision, particularly in the current circumstances, we would not expect this to impact on the duration of a period of recognised training.”

What provisions are being put in place for trainees at law firms?

This latest crisis has forced firms to adopt mandatory working from home policies, which has led to delight and dismay in equal measure. Some trainees are wondering whether this will finally allow them to enjoy future working hours at home once the crisis is over. In the meantime, various policies are being adopted to keep trainees engaged: virtual drinks trolleys, online coffees or regular Zoom meetings are all aimed at maintaining communication between colleagues.

However, what is perhaps most interesting is how firms are looking to learn more about the lives of their employees. “There must be a greater knowledge of people’s personal circumstances,” says Webber. We are trying to work out who is going to be most exposed to this crisis.” For example: who is living on their own, or who is currently in a tricky relationship? However, one must question how intrusive a law firm can be when navigating such sensitive issues… as a trainee, would you want your HR department snooping around your how you get on with flatmates?

What happens with cancelled secondments and vacation schemes?

With international secondments on the back burner and spring/summer vacations schemes being scrapped, many students and trainees will be missing out on anticipated bouts of exciting and useful experience. No longer will trainees be jetting off to firms’ far-flung offices in Hong Kong or New York (feel especially for White & Case, which sells itself to graduates on the promise that trainees are guaranteed to spend six months abroad).

As for vacation schemes, a slew due to take place over the Easter holidays have already been cancelled. The hope is that most of these will be pushed back to the summer: it’s not ideal but with a bit of shuffling an extra cohort can be brought into most firms in a spare fortnight in July or August.

The greater danger comes if the coronavirus disruption rumbles on into the summer, but even then it isn’t the end of the world. Vac schemes are very useful for vetting students and giving them a feel for a firm, but not everyone can do one even in normal times, and old-fashioned application forms and video interviews can still be used for recruitment purposes.

How will an economic downturn affect trainee retention?

Unsurprisingly, firms are remaining coy when it comes to the question of recruitment, with many partners claiming it is too early to consider whether retention rates will be down come the autumn.  “We wouldn’t normally be asking people what they need until the summer,” says Shearman’s James Webber, who stresses that it will still take a good few months before the firm must ask itself the question.

However, for current trainees, this isn’t calming any nerves. “I think that people already weren’t really sure what the job list was going to look like,” says one City trainee. “I think that this is definitely going to affect it. I am definitely nervous about because work is already slowing down.”

Lawyer-turned career coach Husnara Begum argues many trainees are at risk: “Any trainees who don’t get an internal offer will be in a vulnerable position. The NQ market is super-competitive and often leaves trainees scrambling round. Trainees are just as vulnerable as LPC students right now. We don’t know what lies ahead for them, particularly as some are inevitably going to have gaps in their CVs.”

For comparison, in a normal year about 80 per cent of trainees end up staying on as NQs with the firm that trained them, but in 2009, the year after the last big financial crash, that fell to 74 per cent  – and the 2010 qualifiers suffered too before retention returned to pre-crash levels. A drop of 6 percentage points may not seem much but it equates to around 350 extra trainees across the UK out of a job, and potentially with nowhere else to go. It’s not necessarily what will happen this September, but it is a sobering potential outcome nonetheless.

The crystal ball will already be out for many law firms looking at where NQ lawyers will be needed over the next 12 months, with insolvency and restructuring already emerging as top contender. Even with this Great Isolation, there will still be demand for NQs. It’s just that right now, the futures prospects of scores of recently-qualified lawyers hang in the balance.