LETR: Must try harder

Average marks for long-awaited legal education review; little change predicted by leading players

 “I’d give it a reasonable 2.2,” was the faint praise heaped on The Legal Education and Training Review (or Letr, pronounced ‘letter’ to those involved in the process) by one leading law school executive.

Indeed, if the authors of the 370-page report – which has been more than two and a half years in the gestating and was finally released last week – were submitting it as a degree dissertation their supervisors might also apply several other criticisms: long-winded, cluttered with verbosity and jargon, lacking focus and, in the words students would recognise, failing to cut to the chase.


Time for a change

Beyond debate is the premise that legal education in England and Wales – and arguably the wider UK – is ripe for reform. Providers and students alike are acutely aware that in a global market at the top commercial end, the qualification route in this country looks laboured and anachronistic.

Arguably, the present process forces students too early into too narrow a silo – solicitor, barrister or legal executive – with the two larger regulators then insisting on protracted vocational periods before qualification. Compare that with the far more streamlined systems in other major common law jurisdictions where the focus is on a shorter qualification period producing gen-eric lawyers who go on to specialise once they have their feet under a desk at a law firm or chambers.

But this report – commissioned by the SRA, the Bar Standards Board and Legal Executives’ Professional Standards – while broadly giving the existing system a clean bill of health, fails to grapple with those more profound issues, complain academics at the coal face. 

The atmosphere around the release of the report was given a jolt of electricity from the head of the -solicitors’ representative body when he pre-empted its release by telling a Sunday newspaper there was an over-supply of as many as 3,000 places on the LPC. Law Society chief executive Des Hudson later told The Lawyer he was not calling for a cap on places but saying that course providers needed to take more responsibility for informing prospective students of realities of the legal sector jobs market.

The substance of the report boils down to several core recommendations: giving students a larger dose of law firm commercial management and finance instruction (possibly at the expense of time spent on black-letter law), beefed up ethics lessons, blending vocational study with on-the-job experience and widening non-graduate routes into the profession, with a special mention for possible apprenticeships.

On balance, none of this has caused academics to sit bolt upright. 

“There was nothing we weren’t expecting,” says Peter Crisp, dean of BPP Law School. “It’s not likely to have a major impact on the programmes that we offer.”

His counterpart at the University of Law echoes that view. “There’s nothing that makes us think we should be doing something we are not doing already,” responds Nigel Savage, the university’s president. 

Both claim their programmes already cover business elements and a healthy whack of professional ethics. 

“It’s about commercial awareness; it’s not about doing an MBA,” comments Savage.

Even the top man at the report’s lead sponsor, SRA chairman Charles Plant, accepts the findings are far from radical. 

“There’s no reason why they should be,” he adds. “No one is asserting that the system is unfit for purpose. In fact it shows considerable elements of flexibility.”

The Bar Council backs that view, with chairman Maura McGowan QC saying: “It would have made more interesting reading if it had been a bit more radical, but it’s good to have the reassurance we’ve been getting it right.”

Perhaps the biggest publicity winner in the aftermath of the report’s release is the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (Cilex). 

Explains that body’s chief executive, Diane Burleigh: “This is the first time the Cilex educational approach has been so carefully researched and evaluated in the context of the legal sector’s education and training routes. The report points out that we are flexible and we’ve hit the button on outcomes-focused regulation. It recognises there is a fairly rigid structure in relation to solicitors and barristers, and that should change because of changes in the market. The report recognises that we are already doing a lot of the things recommended – ergo, it can be done.”

Basis for reform?

After all the time and money expended – the SRA will not reveal the report’s budget but grapevine estimates put the cost at around £300,000 – what happens next? That is down to the regulators’ inclinations and their willingness to use the report as a basis for reform.

Charles Plant commits the SRA at least to considering issues raised in the report on non-graduate “pathways” into the profession, while casting an eye over the length of the present training contract and the possibility of putting its recent work-based training pilot scheme on a more permanent footing.

If nothing else, the report lit the touchpaper on a bigger row around whether LPC providers are flooding the market with places and graduates for their own commercial gain. The Law Society’s Des Hudson claims a glut of some 3,000 places has resulted in hordes of disappointed LPC graduates without training contracts or jobs.

But Savage accuses Chancery Lane of invoking “erroneous” figures, pointing out there is a significant distinction between validated LPC places and the number of students enrolled. Both he and Crisp maintain that none of the country’s providers fills all their validated places and that, according to the regulator’s figures, last year some 6,230 students sat the LPC exams, while there were 4,869 training contracts on offer.

They also point out that, at an average failure rate of 10 per cent, the shortfall of training contracts to LPC graduates is less than 750, working out to about 1.2 students for every traineeship. 

“That doesn’t look to me a market that is over-supplied,” says Savage. “If this nonsense continues there will be fewer LPC graduates than there are training contracts.”

Crisp also points out that Chancery Lane could be undermining its own position regarding access to the profession. 

“If you want to discourage diversity, those comments [from Hudson] are the way to put people off,” he says.

He goes on to claim that the market is already adjusting to the harsh economic climate, with an 8 per cent fall last year in the number of LPC places offered and a similar drop anticipated this year. 

Over at Chancery Lane, Hudson accepts the society made its own estimates regarding LPC figures. But he stands by his view that each year’s cohort of LPC students should not be seen in isolation and that a backlog will have amassed.

However, Hudson is clear that he is not calling on the regulator to cap LPC places, a move that the SRA is keen to dismiss as not on the table for consideration. Instead, he wants to see LPC providers take increased responsibility for informing prospective students of post-graduation employment prospects.

“I’m not suggesting we should worry about the forces of supply and demand,” explains Hudson. “We are simply saying we want people to be able to make informed decisions. I don’t believe the quality or range of current information is as good as it should be.”

Show your workings

Legal Services Board chairman David Edmonds kick-started the education and training review in autumn 2010 by flying a kite at a meeting of the Association of Law Teachers. It was time, he said, for a comprehensive review of legal education, bowing, as many saw it, to pressure from some of the bigger providers of the LPC and bar vocational course as well as leading lawyers.

His comments spurred the three regulators to appoint a research group – led by Warwick University law professor Julian Webb – the following spring. The whole shooting match was overseen by two leading lawyers, solicitor Janet Gaymer and former High Court judge Sir Mark Potter.

From the off, concerns were expressed about quango-creep, with various levels – a review committee and an oversight panel – superimposed over the core research programme. The team was also criticised for being overly academic, with only one of the lead researchers having any recent practice experience.

And gradually fears built that the team would never cough up a word of analysis or recommend-ation. Publication was originally set for last December but was delayed three times, with the SRA placed in the unenviable position of occasionally releasing statements saying little more than the report was coming soon. 

But speculation is rife now that the delays were in fact caused by the regulators themselves. One leading commentator suggests the researchers produced a first draft for the original deadline but that version of the report contained recommendations for greater common training for prospective solicitors and barristers that were too much for either, or both, the SRA and the BSB to swallow. So it was knocked back to the researchers with firm instructions to think again.

SRA chairman Charles Plant vehemently denies there was any interference. 

“It is wrong to suggest there was disagreement among the regulators over some of the first draft recommendations,” he says. “This is an independent report and there has been no discussion before release among the regulators regarding its conclusions.”

The report’s leader, Julian Webb, supports him. 

“There is no secret about the delay,” says Webb. “We had a draft report but it was not as complete as we had hoped and it became clear in December that our plan for a relatively short report with a larger, more evidence-based volume sitting behind it was going to be cumbersome and not provide the transparency that was required. At no point have the commissioning regulators sought to interfere with our conclusions.”