TFR debacle overshadows Law Soc training progress

The Law Society’s latest proposals in its controversial review of education and training have been broadly welcomed by the legal market. However, the new plans have been overshadowed by continued criticism of the Training Framework Review (TFR) and the way in which the Law Society has handled its training reforms.

As first reported on www.the (21 October), the Law Society has reneged on its radical plans to make the LPC non-compulsory.

The TFR was established four years ago to bring flexibility to the qualification process and improve access to the profession. The Law Society announced its latest plans, which have been approved by the society’s standards board, on 21 October. It examined more than 200 responses, received during the third consultation, which ended on 8 July.

Commenting on the latest proposals, College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage said: “I’m delighted that the Law Society has seen the light. But this is a result of the overwhelming criticism of the original proposals.”

Meanwhile, Melissa Hardee, a senior member of the Training Framework Review Group (TFRG) and course director of the Inns of Court School of Law, argued: “Whether you call it a U-turn or not, the new proposals are vastly different to what was originally proposed.”

Law Society chief executive Janet Paraskeva is resolute. She told The Lawyer: “There was no row at the meeting between the Law Society and the Legal Education Training Group, and the society has not been forced into a U-turn on the TFR proposals.”

Under the Law Society’s revised plans, students would be required to complete the LPC, but could be given exemptions from parts of the course based on prior qualifications. The TFRG is also considering allowing electives to be studied outside the LPC – perhaps during the training contract or independently.

The Law Society has not confirmed to whom exactly the exemption applies, but said licensed conveyancers and legal executives might be able to bypass the LPC. Paraskeva commented: “We’re considering that students could be given exemptions from all or part of the LPC if they’ve already passed equivalent exams. Hence the LPC may not be compulsory for all.

“These ideas reflect the need for more flexibility in the provision of the LPC, given the costs and time the course requires,” she continued. “This has been a consistent aim of the TFR and is in no way a U-turn.”

The latest proposals also include new compulsory and centrally set assessments covering financial and business skills, which are currently covered on the LPC, as well as professional conduct.

BPP Law School chief executive Peter Crisp said: “We’d welcome greater flexibility, but I’d question the value of divorcing [financial and business skills] from the LPC. Centrally tested assessments encourage cramming.”

It is understood that the Law Society is considering outsourcing the centrally set assessments in financial and business skills and professional conduct to external providers.

Crisp argued that it was unclear what the next stage of the process would include and added that further consultation was necessary.

The third and final part of the latest Law Society proposals deals with the assessment of trainees’ performances while in practice. The new proposals, which will be fleshed out by the TFRG today (31 October), include the creation of online learning portfolios. It is understood that the Law Society is hoping to assess one in every three portfolios.

Chair of the Trainee Solicitors’ Group Peter Wright said the introduction of portfolios was a positive step. “It will hopefully mean that all trainees will have a good level of involvement in client work,” he explained.

However, critics of this proposal argue that the introduction of training portfolios is unworkable because of issues such as client confidentiality. Savage at the College of Law argued: “This is going to be extremely costly, so who’s going to pay for it?”
The Law Society’s approach to the TFR has upset a lot of people. Indeed, the society has made enemies out of many of the stakeholders in legal education. Paraskeva defended the TFRG, arguing: “The TFRG has worked extremely hard for the last four years and faced unfair and misleading criticisms. It’s been a working group without any decision-making responsibilities. The TFR proposals have gone to profession-wide consultation three times and a final decision on the proposals will rest with the Law Society Council.”

The watered-down proposals appear much more palatable and seem a sensible step forward. It is now crucial for the Law Society to win buy-in from the profession and legal education providers. So perhaps now is the time for the parties to call a truce.