Market slates Law Society’s planned education shake-up

As part of the biggest shake-up in legal education for decades, the Law Society’s Standards Board has voted through far-reaching proposals that will allow students to sit final exams without having to undertake vocational or accredited courses.

It also recommends imposing an additional level of external assessment at the end of a training contract, which, if implemented, would add considerable cost and administrative burdens for law firms wishing to train their own lawyers.

The proposals were passed by the board, despite two members of the Training Framework Review Group (TFRG) – the 10-person body that submitted the plan – voting against it.

The proposals will be presented to the Law Society’s full committee in February, before going out to consultation with the legal profession.

The TFRG was established four years ago to overhaul the whole of legal education and training. It aims to introduce flexibility into the qualification process, reduce law students’ expenses, improve the quality of lawyers, and promote access for overseas and domestic students.

Wide sections of the academic and City firm community, however, have condemned its proposals, arguing they will compromise standards in exchange for cheaper and quicker education. Many also argue that it will increase access to the profession for only a tiny minority of students who can most benefit from studying outside university.

In a hard-hitting report attacking the scheme, the two dissenting members of the TFRG, Melissa Hardee of the Inns of Court School of Law and Phil Knott of Nottingham Law School, wrote: “To focus exclusively on assessment in the process is a retrograde step considering where legal education has come from over the past 25 years.”

Nigel Savage, chief executive of the College of Law, said the proposals may also put a spanner in the works of developments inside law firms. “Many law firms are looking at increasing the research skills of their lawyers. Under the scheme they won’t be able to do this,” he said.

Janet Paraskeva, chief executive of the Law Society, told The Lawyer that choice was at the heart of the review. “It is seeking to unpack the one-size-fits-all model of qualifying to become a solicitor. In many ways the current approach has become outmoded, expensive and possibly discriminatory,” she said.

Education providers, who stand to lose students and therefore revenue as a result of the proposals, and law firms contacted by The Lawyer believed almost universally that the LPC, combined with the law degree or the GDL route, remains the best option for law students.

Bernard George, Dechert’s director of training and a former director of the Store Street branch of the College of Law, said: “I’m very surprised that the Law Society is taking this line. Most people think legal training has improved dramatically over the last decade, and that the LPC [the vocational part of training] is an improvement on what went before.”

One senior academic went further, suggesting the Law Society has sacrificed the benefits of the LPC in order to save money. He pointed to the fact that the Law Society has to pay for “expensive” evaluations on law schools. The source said that by scrapping them, which is a possible outcome of the proposals, the Law Society can look more “businesslike”. “It is now only interested in quality assurance at the point of exit,” he added.

Nonetheless, external assessment of trainees on completion of the work-based learning stage would undoubtedly add to law firms’ and the Law Society’s cost burden. Law firms would have additional administrative burdens in managing trainees’ preparation for assessment and would presumably bear the expense of paying for the external assessors. The Law Society in turn would be responsible for assessing the assessors.

To further anger the City’s top firms, it is also being proposed that firms’ trainee supervisors should undergo Law Society assessments. Dechert’s George condemned the suggestion as “utterly perverse”. “Students don’t have to attend a course, and yet trainee supervisors have to do so. This can’t be right,” he said.