To train in Spain

A Europe-wide quality drive is elevating Spain’s legal education system to a whole new level. Joanne Harris reports on the benefits and hurdles of implementation

Until now, becoming a lawyer in Spain has been a straightforward process. Students go to university, take a law degree and, upon qualification, become members of the local bar association. The system stands out as a stark contrast to the training required by law in neighbouring Portugal and other ­European jurisdictions.

But the Spanish system is set to change. Under new legislation, proposed but awaiting Royal Decree, students will be required to spend two years in further training after completing their degrees. This training could be at a law firm or an academic institution. A trainee lawyers will not be able to earn a salary while undertaking the training, but could be granted a law firm scholarship.

The Bologna link

The change in regulation is due partly to the EU’s Bologna Process, which is designed to streamline qualifications in all member states. The Bologna Declaration, signed in 1999, implemented a qualifications framework that now applies to 47 participating countries.

Spanish lawyers are overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals. “Frankly speaking, it’s hard to say why this hasn’t been implemented a long long time ago,” says Cuatrecasas Gonçalves Pereira partner Javier Villasante. “This is a big issue and we’re happy that these measures will soon be a reality in Spain.”

“Clearly it’s not reasonable to have admitted to the bar people who’ve just finished their studies in law,” says Baker & McKenzie Madrid managing partner Luis Briones.

“I think it’s going to be hugely positive.”

Pérez-Llorca senior partner Pedro Pérez-Llorca points out that the changes will also benefit clients, as they will be advised by more experienced, better-trained lawyers than is currently the case.

Hire blighting

However, there remain obstacles. As the proposals have not yet been signed into law, the exact way in which the new system will work is still up in the air. Although 2011 graduates will qualify as usual, from 2012 students will have to begin the two years’ training. This poses problems for law firms planning their 2012 recruitment rounds and the future requirement for junior ­associates, as firms will be unable to hire new lawyers straight from university, ­potentially causing a two-year hiring lag.

Lawyers are also concerned that the inability of firms to pay students while they are undergoing training could decrease access to the profession. Scholarships are likely to be available, but many students could end up having to fund their own two years of further study.

“All this will complicate access to the law market. There’ll probably be less opportunity. Certainly the idea is to train them, not to exploit them,” says Uría Menéndez managing partner Luis de Carlos.

“We need to be very careful that not only students with enough resources are able to accede to the real opportunities,” warns Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer Spain ­managing partner Iñaki Gabilondo.

But Allen & Overy partner Juan Barona suggests that the scheme will improve the quality of those young lawyers who do get hired by top firms. “Only the best will have access to law firms,” he predicts.

“The other ones will have more difficulty.”

“Whenever you impose a more stringent selection system there’ll be people who lose,” notes Pérez-Llorca.

Better? You bet

The consensus among experienced practitioners is that the changes are likely to improve the quality of lawyers coming into the Spanish market, while noting that in the big firms at least a couple of years’ training after qualification is standard practice.

“We don’t think it’s strictly needed; a legal firm such as Ashurst already has a ­programme in place,” points out Gonzalo Jiménez-Blanco, managing partner of the UK firm’s Madrid office.

“I think there’s a need of having a more down-to-earth approach,” stresses Gabilondo, “more focused on the practice and real issues than a theoretical approach to questions. I think we’ve noticed that sometimes universities weren’t sufficient to prepare students to do the type of work we do, which is understandable, as universities aren’t supposed necessarily to be preparing lawyers.”

Freshfields is one of a number of firms to use a UK-style rotation during its internal training; in fact, just like their UK counterparts, the firm’s Spanish recruits spend six months in four different seats within the firm.

At Pérez-Llorca lawyers spend 18 months rotating through three departments. Both Cuatrecasas and Hogan Lovells are also planning to introduce rotation to their internal training programmes in the near future.

While firms wait for the fine details of the new legislation to be hammered out, ­several are working with universities to start preparing new training programmes. This will continue once the Royal Decree has been granted and the proposals finally become a reality.