Testing time for the profession

Are trainee solicitors and newly qualifieds any less literate or numerate than their counterparts who qualified 10, 20 or even 30 years ago? This is one of the questions the Law Society working party on entry to the profession is debating as part of its investigation into reducing the number of entrants to the profession.

I think all would agree that members of the legal profession should be literate, numerate and be able to express themselves both verbally and in writing, and that it is critical that professional standards are maintained.

However, the proposal that all candidates must pass a filtering exam testing qualities of logic, literacy and communications skills to gain a place on a legal practice course is a great matter of concern.

So far only anecdotal evidence exists that standards are falling in the profession. Before we add another layer on the route to qualification, we need concrete evidence of falling standards and must ask what an admissions test would achieve. Would a test make it any more likely that we find people with the qualities which make a good solicitor? Indeed, what are those qualities?

A test similar to that being proposed already exists in the legal system in Northern Ireland, a test which I have taken twice, failing the first time and passing the second.

The two three-hour papers in the admissions test, which was introduced in 1986, are designed to test a student’s ability to apply their knowledge of the law in a practical way and should reveal the following: capacity to elicit facts from a mass of information; ability to handle available material; ability to express oneself clearly; common sense; and numeracy.

Places at the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, are now awarded solely on a candidate’s score in this test, plus a mark for the applicant’s degree. Interviews only occur if a referee’s comments indicate some doubt over a candidate who has gained a place.

Fortunately this arbitrary test made no difference to my future as I stayed in England and was lucky enough to get a training contract. But, there are still a number of question marks over the introduction of a test into this country, not least the difficulties experienced by the Bar in its attempts to introduce an admissions test.

Would an admissions test for solicitors in England and Wales condemn the new Legal Practice Courses before their first students have qualified? Are we ready to move back to one centralised test which would defeat the purpose of decentralised LPC providers.

The format of any test would be crucial. A test that candidates can prepare for and resit could skew results.

Would a standardised test produce the same sort of people entering the profession, when we need people with different qualities and attributes suited to the different areas of law and types of films?

While the working party is addressing the crucial issue of standards in the profession, the question of the numbers of people entering law may be resolving itself.

There are now fewer applicants than places on Legal Practice Courses and the number of applications for such courses is down this year. The word has spread to potential applicants about the difficulties of getting on an LPC and then obtaining a training contract. It could be argued that market forces are working.

The Trainee Solicitors Group has long argued that applicants for the LPC and CPE should be fully informed about their prospects of qualifying and their prospects after qualification before they embark on the courses.

It may be that this information process and market forces are the key to reducing intake into the profession, but this still remains a question for the working party to consider and report on.

Society working party on entry standards. He is also a trainee solicitor at Freeth Cartwright