Prediction: The number of training contracts will fall but new routes into the profession will multiply.
When it comes to legal education crystal ball-gazing should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, the report intended to shape thinking about the junior end of the profession for years to come has just been published.
So has the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) cleared the waters? Not really. Its recommendations are not radical and the reaction to it has been one of mild disappointment, the profession failing even to summon up enough energy to stick the boot in.
Despite this, other forces are affecting how lawyers are trained and recruited. The number of training contracts has fallen steadily since a high just before the recession. There were 6,303 new trainees registered in 2007/08, but by 2011/12 that was down by 23 per cent, to 4,869.
And it is not just the recession putting a dampener on recruitment. Outsourcing and more sophisticated IT mean tedious tasks that were traditionally given to trainees can now be completed in other ways, at a fraction of the cost.
Given these factors and the fact that one of LETR’s recommendations was that “work should proceed to develop higher apprenticeship qualifications as part of an additional non-graduate pathway into the regulated professions”, will apprenticeships challenge training contracts?
“You may see the number of contracts decline but in general the big firms haven’t reduced their intakes,” says BPP’s dean and CEO Peter Crisp. “The system works very nicely for most. There’s been a lot of interest in apprenticeships for business services in law firms, but not for law itself.”
Crisp’s opposite number at the University of Law, Nigel Savage, also questions whether apprenticeships are the way forward.
“The point of appointing paralegals is to reduce your cost base, not create more partners,” says Savage, who predicts “a drift towards training in the workplace”, but points to “the liberating force that is the internet” as the logical expression of that.
“Our fastest-growing programme is the online LPC,” adds Savage. “Students can take the course in the workplace or at home.”
Crisp anticipates that apprenticeships will take off at some firms, citing Eversheds as an example.
“They employ a large number of paralegals in their litigation department, and apprenticeships could work well for them,” says Crisp.
Firms that ignore the apprenticeship route could lose out to accountancy firms in the war for talent.
“They’re recruiting top students at 18, putting them into an apprenticeship and five years later they’re qualified accountants,” he adds.
The most radical predictions come from John Flood, professor of law and sociology at Westminster University and a member of the Legal Service Board’s Research Strategy Group. He agrees the training contract has a future but predicts that it will become a smaller part of how young people enter the law.
“I can’t imagine the City firms rejecting the training contract,” Flood says, “but for a lot of small firms there might not be so much need for it. They might just want somebody who’s done a bit of CILEx or is basically an administrator who can do less legal, more form-based, work.”
Flood foresees market fragmentation whereby more paralegals and legal executives focusing on specific areas will be needed.
But he, Crisp and Savage all agree on one point: the globalisation of legal education.
“We’ll see more young people from China and elsewhere qualifying at the New York bar and taking into the workplace a loyalty to New York rather than the English solicitors’ profession,” says Savage.
Both he and Flood predict the rise of multi-jurisdictional qualifications that will allow students to graduate with a JD and an LLB.
“About 12 schools in the US already have double programmes,” says Flood. “They have tie-ups with places in Canada and Australia, and students spend time in both schools but effectively end up with degrees in both countries. There’s a lot more we in the UK could do.”
The last word goes to Savage.
“I hope we’ll underpin the success of UK plc in the global legal services market. If we do there will be lots of opportunities for legal education providers and for UK plc to increase the contribution law makes to GDP. If we don’t we’ve got competitors all round the world waiting to take advantage.
John Flood, professor of law and sociology, University of Westminster
There will be a plurality of gateways into the legal profession and the legal services market. If I were a student knowing what I know, would I want to become a partner? Perhaps, if I want to make bundles of money and thought I could get that far. Or would I rather be a director of an ABS that might be really going places?
Peter Crisp, dean and CEO, BPP Law School
How many LPC providers will there be in five years? If the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice cannot make a go
of it with 80 students, you
have to wonder.
The paralegal route will be attractive to students who want the chance to become a qualified solicitor but don’t want to incur the debt university entails. The apprenticeship route means they will be able to work and study at the same time, and get paid – and they can graduate with a degree if they decide to go all the way. That’s what we are planning to do with our programme.
Nigel Savage, provost and president, The University of Law
In five years I hope English regulators will have woken up to the importance of maintaining the dominance of English law by facilitating the qualification of young lawyers all round the world as English lawyers. At the moment they haven’t. We in this country are losing out to the New York bar because it is much more accessible.
David Morley, Allen & Overy