Training reform will be a backward step

It took Nasa eight years to put a man on the moon. Reforming the training of solicitors is taking longer, but the result could be a giant leap backwards.

In 2001 the Law Society’s training committee launched the Training Framework Review. It wanted to reduce barriers to qualification as a solicitor and so increase the diversity of the profession. It has since reworked its proposals, but the basic goal has remained. Now, renamed as the education and training committee of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), it has launched what it hopes is the final plan.

The biggest idea is that, from 2010, solicitors should be able to qualify without first doing a training contract, so long as they have at least 16 months’ practical legal experience. That experience need not be with a firm authorised to take trainees and need not meet the rules that currently regulate training contracts. This will be great news for many paralegals who have passed the LPC, who may be waved through to qualification.

Firms may go on offering regulated training contracts if they wish, although they will have little incentive to do so. The SRA says that, if firms want to go on being accredited as training institutions, they will have to pay increased fees and shoulder new regulatory burdens, such as the need to train supervisors to SRA standards. But all that can be avoided by firms rebadging trainees as paralegals.

But whether a trainee does a regulated training contract or not, they will not be able to qualify until they have submitted a portfolio of their work to an assessor. Assessors will check that the candidate appears to meet a long list of criteria. The draft criteria include assessing whether the student:
•works to put clients at ease;
•appears calm and confident;
•demonstrates sensitivity to social/cultural diversity and/or disability;
•works cooperatively with colleagues; and
•deals with people in an honest way.

These are admirable criteria, but devilishly difficult to assess from a written portfolio presented by someone you have never met. Indeed, it will be hard for an assessor to know how accurately any portfolio reflects the true ability of a candidate.

A completely honest trainee will include in their portfolio a frank account of their mistakes and failings, but as a result may find it hard to qualify. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who lack advisers who understand how the portfolio game is played, may struggle. This seems to be the opposite of what the SRA intends.

A recent meeting of the Legal Education and Training Group, which represents those involved in training at law firms, discussed these changes. Members were overwhelmingly hostile to the planned reforms of the training contract, which were seen as unworkable and counterproductive.

There was also concern about the plan to allow students to take their LPC electives as part of their law degree. The fear is that this will result in existing undergraduate modules being badged as LPC electives, thereby simply reducing the amount of training students receive. The two changes together will take a year off the time required to qualify (four months off the LPC, eight months off the training contract). It is hard to see how this can be done without lowering standards.

Many feel that the SRA should focus on raising standards and protecting the public. The idea that the planned changes will increase the diversity of the profession by removing barriers to qualification is not convincing. More likely, they will create twin-track training.

Those recruited by the large commercial firms will continue to receive quality training, much like today, since those firms have the resources and a strong incentive to maintain standards. Those going into less remunerative practice areas may not be so lucky, to the cost of both them and their clients.