The evolution of professional training

Making changes to any profession’s education or training scheme is always hazardous: some will interpret the suggestion of change as a slur on existing systems, while others will consider anything short of revolution as hopelessly timid.

In fact, the present training arrangements for the legal profession, dating from the early 1990s, have responded well to the challenges of the recent past, especially for a period of growth that has seen the profession double in size.

So why might we now need to make further changes to the legal training landscape. Have things changed so radically in the 15 years since the introduction of the more explicitly vocational teaching of the LPC, linked to the formal training contract covering learning in the workplace?First, responsibility for legal education and training now lies with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). Our emphasis is protection of the public. What follows from this is a strong requirement for the SRA to be certain of the standards that clients can expect when they employ qualified solicitors. Training contract arrangements are often excellent, but at present we are unable to state with confidence that all the current arrangements are operating to the required high standard.

Second, the SRA supports the move in professional training towards outcomes-based training and away from the old ‘time-served’ approach. In future it should matter less where you have studied and for how long; what will be important is the outcome of your learning, which can be assessed against the standards we set.

As a regulator we are committed to wide access to the profession. This means we have to ensure that our training system does not impose any unfair or unnecessary barriers on those who have the necessary skills from being able to qualify, while at the same time ensuring that high standards are not compromised.

All of these factors will have to be taken into account as the SRA develops an updated training pathway in collaboration with the profession and educational institutions.

Four important developments are already underway. First, we have instituted more rigorous checks on the character and suitability of would-be solicitors at entry to the LPC and at the point of qualification.

Second, and in line with the need for a clearer statement of standards, we have published ‘day one outcomes’. This is the high-level statement of what we expect a solicitor to be able to do at the point of qualification. It breaks down into six areas: core knowledge and understanding of the law applied in England and Wales; intellectual, analytical and problem-solving skills; transactional and dispute resolution skills; legal, professional and client relationship knowledge and skills; personal development and work management skills; and professional values, behaviours, attitudes and ethics.

Third, we are progressing well with updating the LPC to introduce greater flexibility. This would be optional, so that some students could choose where and when to study the electives. We are also updating and simplifying the present written standards and assessment arrangements in line with ‘day one outcomes’. This new-look LPC will operate from autumn 2009. Fourth, all trainees will in future have to demonstrate achievement of standards linked to ‘day one outcomes’. We have decided to delay the pilot of the arrangements to achieve this goal and introduce a separate pilot of an alternative scheme to the conventional training contract to give more time to develop the detail of the proposals.

All of this work will be underpinned by our ‘What is a Solicitor?’ project, which will begin in earnest this autumn. Our aim is to set the milestones for solicitors’ professional careers and development.

The next few years will see a substantial evolution, rather than a revolution.