Law schools need to give prospective solicitors a stronger dose of commercial nous so they can cope with alternative business structures (ABS) and the evolving structure of the legal profession, says a long-delayed report into education and training released today (25 June).
The recommendations follow controversial remarks from the boss of the solicitors’ trade union at the weekend, when he claimed there was an over-supply of up to 3,000 places on the legal practice course.
The legal education and training review (LETR) – which has been more than two years in the making – calls on regulators to consider a range of reforms, including enhanced common training for future solicitors and barristers, beefed up ethics instruction, blending vocational study with on-the-job experience and widening non-graduate routes into the legal profession.
The report was commissioned by the legal profession’s three main watchdogs – the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and the Institute of Legal Executives’ Professional Standards (26 November 2012).
However, the review – suffering at least three false starts over the last six months (18 February 2013) – has been lambasted as “a missed opportunity” that simply regurgitates existing proposals.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel said there was much in the report that it had been calling for, but attacked the researchers for lacking boldness.
“This is a missed opportunity to redesign legal education and training around the needs of consumers,” said the panel’s chairwoman, Elisabeth Davies.
The panel – an independent branch of umbrella regulator, the Legal Services Board – said the researchers ducked the issue of introducing periodic reaccreditation in high risk practice areas, which Davies described as “the single biggest thing the review could have done to bolster consumer confidence in the quality of legal work”.
She went on to claim that reaccreditation – which has been introduced to the medical profession – was ignored by the review “because surveys of practitioners show they don’t want it”.
The report says black-letter law elements of the legal practice course should be shaved back to allow for a greater “focus on commercial awareness, and better preparation for alternative practice contexts”.
The authors recommend greater “blending” of formal education and training contract experience.
The length of the current two-year training contract should also reviewed, with an eye on removing “unnecessary restrictions on training environments and organisation and to facilitate additional opportunities for qualification or independent practice”.
The report also calls for students to be inculcated with an enhanced sense of ethics and professionalism so they have a greater understanding of “the relationship between morality and law, the values underpinning the legal system and the role of lawyers in relation to those values”.
Apprenticeships should also be developed for the legal profession, according to the researchers, and regulators should consider launching schemes to monitor quality performance of paralegals.
Commenting on the recommendations, SRA chairman Charles Plant said the research will form the backdrop for the authority’s forthcoming reforms.
“Using that review and our own findings, we will be discussing key priorities with our stakeholders over the next few months, and will publish a policy statement later in the year,” he said. “We’ll take account of the needs of consumers across the legal sector and the wider public interest and ensure that our work is properly co-ordinated with that of the other regulators.”
Nigel Savage, the president of the University of Law, described the report as a ‘competent overview’, but one that contained “no surprises”.
He continued: “The major issue is what the regulators do with it and how – if at all – they use it to deliver their own strategic plans. What we desperately need is a strategy based on sustaining the competitive advantage of the domestic and global legal services market. There is too much negative talk in the sector at the moment”
Indeed, before the recommendations were unveiled, Law Society chief executive Des Hudson riled law school leaders by telling the Sunday Times that “2,000-3,000 people a year are emerging from [the LPC] with no immediate prospect of a training contract with a law firm and becoming a solicitor. We believe some people who are being sold these courses have no reasonable prospects of being hired to become a solicitor.”