Tag Archives: legal education and training

Where do the law students go?

Student enrolments on the full time Legal Practice Course have fallen for the fifth year in a row, according to a report in this week’s Law Society Gazette, leaving nearly half the approved LPC places in England and Wales unfilled. Given the dearth of available training contracts, students are probably right to stay away from the LPC: who wants to invest so much money and a year of your life in a vocational course which prepares you for a job which may not exist?

And yet….I’m interested in what happens to the 1,000s of law graduates who (presumably) still want a career in the law and who would previously have gone on to the LPC and to qualify as a solicitor. Unfortunately, it’s not the case that those who choose to do the LPC are the best qualified – it’s far more likely that they are simply the wealthiest and the most willing and able to take a gamble. The LPC, therefore, is fast becoming a massive, anti-meritocratic barrier to entry. Given the vital role the legal profession plays in our society, this is regrettable to say the least.

The banking crisis and recession only account for part of the fall in training contract numbers. The legal profession is undergoing structural changes and will continue to do so for several years yet. However, that doesn’t mean that, as a society, we need fewer lawyers. What it does mean is that we need different lawyers and far more variety and flexibility in legal training. We also need to recognise that there will be a variety of different legal roles in the future.

Those of us involved in legal education have a two-fold challenge with our current students. We have to prepare them for a world which is changing in unpredictable ways and we also have to give students good careers advice, which strikes the right balance between realism and ambition. The days of virtually automatic progression from LLB to LPC to training contract to qualification are dying, if not dead yet. We therefore have a broader duty as well – it’s time to develop better, more effective and more affordable routes to satisfying legal careers. At present, too many young people are being unnecessarily left behind with feelings of disappointment and failure.


Has the LPC had its day?

The solicitors’ profession is just embarking on a consultation which could result in a revolution in the way that solicitors are trained and authorised. The SRA’s response to the Legal Education and Training Review – Training for Tomorrow – is only 20 pages long, but the proposals which are outlined affect each stage of training from the qualifying law degree to continuing professional development and all steps in between.

Consultation will continue throughout 2014, so the final shape of the new framework will not be known for another year or more, but a possible outcome is a system of testing competency standards at the point of qualification, without prescribing any specific pathway/s to achieving those standards.

The SRA describe their proposals as “radical” and they are not wrong. The old sequential pattern of academic-vocational-practical is on the way out, to be replaced with a blank sheet of paper, on which individuals, firms, ABSs, universities, professional law schools can write their own training plan.

I suspect many firms will fill their blank sheet of paper with the old familiar training plan and recruit law graduates with qualifications indistinguishable from those currently mandated. But I hope that the profession and education and training providers will be more imaginative and seize the opportunity to devise a variety of brand new training pathways.

For example: do we really need the Legal Practice Course? The LPC has served us well but was devised at a time when the profession was much more homogeneous that it is today. Is it appropriate to have a single course which tries to prepare trainees for today’s huge variety of legal work, practices and business structures?

The LPC also suffers from a serious structural limitation. It tries to teach students vocational skills in a simulated environment. Many of these skills could be better taught in the workplace. The SRA review opens up the possibility of breaking down the barriers between the academic, vocational and practical stages of training, bringing knowledge acquisition closer to the office and the courtroom, and practical skills closer to the classroom and lecture hall.

Such a radical approach would require a new mind set from employers, most of whom currently demand that trainees start work ready to earn fees, and from education providers, who would need to become far more flexible. But it could produce entrants to the profession who are equipped with deeper legal knowledge and a wider range of work-related skills, ready to serve the public confidently from the moment of qualification.

Should paralegals be regulated?

There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of paralegals employed by law firms in the last few years and all the signs are that this trend will continue. Many, including the Legal Education and Training Review, have argued that this burgeoning workforce needs to be regulated and put on a proper professional footing.

However, the Legal Services Board, the supreme oversight body for all branches of the legal profession has come out against regulation of individual paralegals, arguing instead that the firms employing them should have a responsibility for ensuring that they are competent to perform whatever tasks are allocated to them.

The LSB proposals are out for consultation until December, but it seems likely that their view will prevail. This will be disappointing news for paralegals, many of whom are highly skilled and carry significant responsibility. They deserve some proper professional recognition, rather than simply being known as someone who is “not quite” a qualified lawyer.

The LSB, however, is more concerned about risks to consumers than the sensitivities of the workforce and, from that point of view, their position has some logic to it. As virtually all paralegals are employed in law firms (or, increasingly, alternative business structures) which are themselves regulated, there is no real need to impose requirements on the individual employees.

Instead, employers will need to look at their recruitment, training and supervision practices. The professional bodies will be asking them to show that they have proper systems in place to ensure the competence of their paralegal workforce and that they are managing the risks to consumers in a proportionate way. In-house learning and development teams and legal training providers will need to respond with some new thinking and innovative solutions.