Keeping it real

One of the Training Framework Review’s key intentions is to promote diversity in the legal profession. Michael Gunn on the issues the review needs to address

Diversity in the legal profession is a key driver behind the Training Framework Review (TFR). This is an important aim for entry to, and progression in, the legal profession. A serious concern about the outline proposals in the third consultation paper from the TFR (2005) is that an improvement in the diversity of the solicitors’ profession will not be achieved.

If greater diversity in the profession is not achieved, there is a real risk that the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission will all wish to look very closely at the solicitors’ profession, as was made clear during the course of the Lord Chancellor’s Standing Committee on Legal Education in November 2004.

It is necessary to consider, then, whether diversity in the solicitors’ profession will be improved should the proposals from the TFR be implemented. In so doing, the following key issues need to be considered and addressed:

Will the enhanced requirements in relation to work-based learning reduce the number and range of training contracts?

The effect of the current proposals may have the following consequences. First, that supervising solicitors have to be trained (presumably with an additional ongoing professional development requirement) to undertake supervision, to advise on the development of a reflective portfolio and to assess the portfolios. Second, that supervising solicitors have more to do by way of supervision and assessment. Third, that trainees have to be given time to construct the reflective portfolio. If these consequences flow, is there a risk that only the large firms, which can absorb such a cost relatively easily, will offer work-based learning opportunities? Would this not, then, reduce the number and range of work-based learning opportunities? If that were to be the case, in what way would this contribute to improving diversity in the legal profession? Incidentally, would this also adversely affect recruitment into work that is not commercially or corporately orientated?

Will the even greater flexibility in routes to qualification produce a less clear and more confusing picture to those considering their career options at the ages of 16 or 17 (or later)?

Often, advice is sought from role models or from known contacts in the legal profession. If there are no role models or no known contacts, to whom will potential entrants to the profession turn? Will the professional and school-based advisers be able to construct meaningful advice through the range of qualifying routes? If not, might this reduce the likelihood of school leavers without existing contacts within the profession pursuing a possible legal career? If so, how will this contribute to improving diversity in the legal profession?

The likelihood is that most people wishing to qualify will take a course, not dissimilar to a legal practice course, that will fit them best for the central assessment that the Law Society will set and mark. Competition is likely to ensure that a range of courses are offered, which in itself may be a good thing. That way a greater range of pricing will occur as there will obviously be less prescription, but you will get what you pay for. Is there, therefore, a risk that at least two tiers of course will emerge, with only those with work-based learning opportunities already arranged being the people able to afford them? People with a work-based learning opportunity may also be able to obtain sponsorship and so offset what will still be significant course and living costs. Alternatively, someone with a work-based learning opportunity is taking less risk in commencing on the course (and paying for it) than someone without such an opportunity already arranged. Will people still commence on a course without a pre-arranged work-based learning opportunity? It seems likely that diversity will be adversely affected. Fear of cost and lack of role models and contacts are likely to impact adversely on diversity, since these are factors that will more likely affect non-traditional entrants to the profession.

Asssuming that some much cheaper course options are designed, is there a risk that the profession, in particular the employers, will not recognise them, meaning taking them will be of little value?

If this were to eventuate, diversity would potentially be adversely impacted. Clearly, if such courses are successful in getting participants through the central assessment, this risk is reduced. But, even then, might the employers be looking for more than just passing the assessment as a consequence of taking a course? The questions are, therefore, what will the employers be seeking from courses? And what are the likely employers’ responses to the various qualifying routes as proposed?

In raising these questions, the objective is to endeavour to ensure that any changes that are introduced do indeed impact successfully on diversity in the legal profession. The risk identified is as a result of the law of unintended consequences. Some work undertaken to tease out these issues is very important. Clearly, some of these questions would be answered if there were to be greater certainty and detail attached to any proposals. There is a need for further work to be done to assess the likely impact of the proposals.

Michael Gunn is dean of Nottingham Law School and chairman of the Committee of Heads of University Law School