Law Soc education head defends training reforms

The Law Society’s head of education and training Julie Swan has issued a robust defence of its proposals for training reform on the conclusion of the consultation period.

The Training Framework Review (TFR) was established four years ago to bring flexibility to the qualification process and improve access to the profession.

Its objectives were widely supported by all sides of the profession, but many accused the Law Society of hijacking the process when the consultation paper was finally launched in February. At the time, David McIntosh, president of the City of London Law Society, accused the TFR of pursuing the “blinkered agendas of people who should know better”. Swan argues that there have actually been three very thorough consultations, which have made quite clear the radical nature of the proposals.

As first revealed by The Lawyer (17 January), when the consultation paper was first issued it received a barrage of criticism from all sides, even generally apathetic law students.

Two senior members of the group that put the consultation paper together – Melissa Hardee, course director at the Inns of Court School of Law, and Phil Knott, head of professional legal studies at Nottingham Law School also attacked the proposals.

Rather than improve access, respondents to the consultation paper argue that the suggested reforms pose a real threat to standards and risk closing the door to those very people intended to be targeted by the TFR. It is widely feared that while the profession’s elite will continue to invest heavily in training, firms at the other end of the scale will find the additional cost burden prohibitive, potentially leading to a split profession, even less diverse than at present.

Swan is resolute. “Standards are at the heart of the proposals,” she tells The Lawyer, pointing to the imposition of more demanding academic standards and that work-based learning will be assessed for the first time.

Firms also remain concerned as to the cost of external assessors and who the Law Society will actually find to fill the roles. However, given that there is no evidence of law firms ever failing to approve a single one of its own trainees as fit to practice, external assessors are a logical move.

Swan argues that there are two tests. The first is for the firm to answer whether it wants to employ an individual on qualification and the second is one for an external assessor, as to whether that person is fit to practise as a solicitor.

Many have also criticised the proposed removal of the requirement to undertake the LPC, arguing that this will inevitably lead to the erosion of standards.

“Some recruiters deliberately choose not to recruit from certain providers. That’s a worry already,” says Swan. “We must not lose sight of the fact that all students will have to pass a centrally set assessment – something that doesn’t currently exist – and it is hoped that this will help level out the playing field.”

The TFR Group has until December to report on its findings, during which time the Law Society must also make up its mind on which of its divisions – regulatory or representative – the responsibility for taking it forward will fall.

There is no doubt as to the overwhelmingly critical nature of the responses, with Northumbria University seemingly an isolated voice of support. Even those not voicing total objection believe that, at best, it raises many more questions than it answers.

With firms spending up to £250,000 to produce each new lawyer, students committing their careers to the profession and education providers reliant on the income from the GDL and LPC courses, the prospect of several more years of consultation and indecision really will not go down well.

 The key proposals:

  • Academic qualification requirements increased.
  • Abolition of compulsory requirement to complete prescribed courses, such as the GDL or the LPC, with a central exam to be sat by all students.
  • Period of work-based learning to be assessed, both internally and externally.
  • The introduction of a new examination of conduct, skills and ethics prior to qualification.
  • Abolition of requirement for trainees to undertake both contentious and non-contentious seats.
  • Abolition of requirement for firms to make a two-year commitment to a trainee at the outset.