The Solicitors Regulation Authority is in the process of conducting a pilot scheme for work-based learning - a new route to qualification as a solicitor. In this article, trainee solicitor Helen Morris writes in support of the proposal.
Traditionally, the method to qualifying as a solicitor, and the one followed by most students, is to first obtain a degree then complete the LPC (and GDL where necessary) followed by a two year training contract. The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority proposed framework for work-based learning aims to provide a strong alternative to the traditional route. This is beneficial for the following reasons:
Clients expect solicitors, as professionals, to provide them with a high standard of service. Yet as many as 300 calls a day are received by the Legal Complaints Service by clients who often feel disappointed or aggrieved at the way they have been treated by their solicitor. Clients must be able to hold the profession to account.
Those qualifying into the profession should have the knowledge, skills and attributes, and the ability to apply them effectively in order to provide a quality service to clients.
There is therefore an overriding need to ensure that the training and development of trainee solicitors supports the provision of high standards of service for clients and, in the public interest, a commitment to the rule of law on the part of the profession in line with the core duties set out in Rule 1 of the Code of Conduct.
A recent YouGov survey revealed that more than two-thirds of consumers have ‘little or no knowledge’ of what lawyers do. Work based learning will better inform clients of the qualification process and consequentially the standard of service they can expect to receive from their solicitor.
Work based learning will also assist the Solicitors Regulation Authority in monitoring the performance of organisations and the qualification standards expected of each trainee solicitor.
Work-based learning aims to provide consistent training standards in relation to qualification, assessment and examination.
The quality of a training contract currently depends entirely on the firm where the training is undertaken, for example the quality of work a trainee is given and whether adequate supervision processes are in place. Many experienced practitioners already in the profession are concerned that the current formal legal training may not be adequately preparing trainees for qualification. Trainees should be expected to qualify with more than just photocopying skills.
One of the most important aspects of work-based learning is that training standards will be consistent across the whole profession, and the emphasis will be on learning outcomes and measurable competence rather than the process.
The work-based learning scheme ensures that both the training firm and the trainee are aware of the training requirements. The training process can significantly affect a trainee’s confidence, and work-based learning helps trainees to better understand what is required of them and how to achieve it. Firms benefit from greater clarity and stability in training expectations, enabling more effective planning for staff training and development needs.
The scheme also ensures that adequate supervision arrangements are in place. Currently many supervisors do not receive any formal training on how to manage trainees. Work-based learning aims to improve the quality of supervision by providing supervisors with a clear indication of what needs to be demonstrated in the portfolio of work. Supervisors will be able to challenge the trainees in a constructive manner and be able to point to a certain level of standards that the trainee is expected to meet.
There is an increasing emphasis on the work-life balance of solicitors, for example, through the working time directive, more mobility in the labour market, career breaks and the recognition of the role of both men and women in the family.
Work based learning responds to this change by offering greater flexibility over routes of entry in to the profession and career patterns to accommodate and sustain the needs of its increasingly diverse membership. Those who choose to start a family early in life or gain experience in an alternative career before coming to the law will be given the same opportunity as all other candidates to embark on a legal career.
Whilst it can be seen that the profession is becoming more representative of the community that it serves, the profession should not become complacent.
The cost of qualifying as a solicitor taking into account university fees, GDL (where appropriate) and LPC fees is in the region of £30,000 - £40,000. Whilst some trainees receive sponsorship from law firms to cover part of this cost, it is imperative that the cost of qualifying as a solicitor is kept to a minimum. Ability, and not the prospect of a financial burden, should be the only barrier to entrance to the profession.
However, in reality many prospective applicants are dissuaded from pursuing a legal career because of the potential financial burden and / or they are unaware that the traditional route to qualification (that is by undertaking a qualifying law degree) is not the only route.
The work based learning proposals will ensure that the profession attracts the widest pool of talent to the profession irrespective of the individual’s background.
Many legal staff undertake work similar to that undertaken by trainee solicitors but without having the opportunity to qualify as a solicitor. Work based learning will ensure that the work undertaken by legal staff, such as legal executives, paralegals and licensed conveyancers are acknowledged and rewarded by being offered the opportunity to qualify as a solicitor.
Firms will not face additional financial or resource burden in providing the opportunity for more employees to qualify as solicitors as many employees will choose to have their portfolio externally accredited. The firm will also benefit from an improvement in the quality and efficiency of employees who are working towards a higher benchmark of standards, and a qualification that offers better career prospects.
Over the last few decades there has been an unprecedented globalisation of the legal market. Many British firms have offices or interests overseas and many foreign lawyers wish to obtain practising rights in England and Wales and do so via the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Regulations.
In addition EU regulations require that as part of the free movement of labour, member states must recognise equivalent legal qualifications obtained in other member states.
Work based learning will provide one route to qualification in England and Wales which should be followed by all applicants irrespective of their nationality. When firms hire qualified solicitors externally (whether a British national or otherwise), work based learning will give added security and confidence to the firms that each candidate will have reached a certain level of knowledge and skill.
The number of students enrolled on the LPC vastly outnumbers those who obtain a training contract. Completing the LPC does not offer any guarantee of qualifying as a solicitor.
As a result many individuals who have the desired legal knowledge and skills obtained during the LPC cannot put this knowledge into practice. Some individuals who are academically and otherwise able to practice are not able to find positions. Work based learning will enable those individuals who have the requisite capability to undertake legal work to utilise their skills and contribute to the firms’ profitability.
The current training contract takes two years to complete. Irrespective of your experiences and development of legal knowledge within the two year period you are still expected to be prepared for practice. Equally, if you are competent before the end of the two year period you cannot qualify early except under the current sometimes inflexible time to count regulations.
Work based learning will provide trainees the opportunity to develop at their own pace. Training will be a minimum of 16 months up to 24 months but could be longer if the trainee needs to complete their portfolio. The focus will shift from simply being employed as a trainee for two years to the capability and competence of the individual for practice.
Whilst supervision is essential and desirable in a training contract the individual must take responsibility for their professional development.
The portfolio assessment ensures that trainees give an account of certain scenarios and evidence the work which they did. They will also need to write an account of how the work fitted into the transaction or the dispute and to reflect upon their experiences to demonstrate understanding of the context and impact of the work and, potentially, to assess whether this met the client’s aims or furthered matters.
The trainee also has the opportunity to discuss their training targets, explore immediate outcomes and define their own objectives, such as how best to structure their training in a manner which would assist them in qualifying into a particular practice discipline.
Currently a trainee must have experience in three distinct substantive areas of law. Under the work based learning proposals trainees would only need to have experienced contentious and non-contentious work.
If a trainee had a clear idea of which area of law he or she would like to qualify, work based learning gives trainees the opportunity to gain as much experience as possible in that particular area of law. This will give trainees the best possible chance of qualifying into their chosen area of law.
Helen Morris is a second year trainee solicitor at Halliwells LLP in Manchester. For further information about work-based learning visit the SRA website.
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