Training ways

In suggesting that the Government has “decided to let” universities charge top-up fees, Lawyer 2B's deputy editor Jennifer Farrar (Lawyer 2B, May 2003) should have said that the white paper proposals give vice-chancellors little option in view of stipulations on increased student intakes, but without additional funding

The money must come from somewhere to pay for the education of so many more students, and if not from the Government, then from commerce, industry and of course top-up fees. To that extent I was interested in reading of the Modern Legal Apprenticeship, as proposed by Chris Ashford of Irwin Mitchell. But is it ancient or modern? Has the wheel turned full circle?

I was a 'five-year man'. Articles binding one to a solicitor for five years of training, including two periods of intense legal studies at a university or the College of Law in preparation for Parts 1 and 2 of the qualifying examinations, resembled the 'sandwich course' familiar to industrial apprentices.

From day one we learned our craft, and even mundane tasks had benefit. Filing, for example, enabled one to see and learn from what one's principal had written, prepared and drafted, while the filing itself provided training in orderly case management. Sitting with him, one learned the art of client care, and there was no finer way of learning court practice than to listen to those whom I believe outclassed totally the advocates of today.

We mixed with other articled clerks, and it was an honour to be allowed to join the local Law Students Society. Friendships lasted and we soon learned on whom we could rely and trust. Sent out on 'completions' of conveyancing transactions (when invariably the palm was pressed with half the fee) enabled us to become acquainted with those solicitors in other firms for whom we developed respect and sometimes awe. Words of encouragement and explanation founded good working relationships in later years. Those who treated us badly taught us to be cautious and careful. By the time of admission, not only had we learned where to find out what we did not know, but also how to care for a client, manage a case and fight a cause. We considered then – as I do now – that in those early years we had the edge on our graduate colleagues who had to catch up on the practical application of their knowledge after only having had two years articles, but in time there was little to tell us apart.

Only the very large firms can provide practical experience in every discipline. That was the drawback of articles in the smaller to average practice, and specialisation creates further restriction. The 'modern apprentice', as envisaged by Irwin Mitchell, will still require an academic education. There is little or no time, money or expertise for in-house training except at the very big firms, which understandably cream off the better graduates with offers of financial reward. Why? Because the more able the graduate, the less training required from the firm and the sooner that trainee will become remunerative in a fee-earning capacity. Otherwise, at considerable expense, 'apprentices' will be sent on courses provided by others. Unless it is proposed to dumb down the training of solicitors, legal education with quality academic education is necessary. Finally, the Government is determined to increase the university student intake, and therefore any idea of the majority of youngsters being able to avoid it by in-house legal training alone is unlikely.

What could assist is a partnership between academia and the profession, a close link between higher education and local firms, an understanding and provision of the needs of each, an opportunity for undergraduates to experience paid office life during vacation time and for trainee solicitors to acquire legal education and to move between firms to increase practical experience.

The old Part l and 2 courses totalled 56 weeks. The proposed two-year foundation degree may well be accomplished by extending the current 3 x 10-week university year to 3 x 12 weeks, with a saving on fees and living expenses.

But it will still cost money to educate the next generation, so how was it done in the bad old days? Easy peasy – we were paid peanuts. The articled clerk was 'cheap labour', the lowest-paid person on the pay roll. Indeed, it is only post-war that families ceased having to pay for their treasured son or daughter to enter into articles, with hefty stamp duty on top. Our parents, council and charity grants provided for us. So at day's end, overall, things do not really change. Like my weight, constant, but from time to time the lean and fat are distributed differently.