In answer to Helen Morris’s article in support of the the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s pilot scheme for work based learning as a new route to qualification, Beth Wanono looks at the arguments against the proposal.

While WBL has inarguable benefits it also, in my opinion, does not do enough to create a fairer position for would-be solicitors. I believe it fails in the following areas:

1. Client confidence

It’s true that the overriding need to ensure that trainee solicitors are trained to an appropriate standard is well-served by WBL. It appears to provide a more vocational approach to training and one which may well ensure that newly-qualified solicitors are more well-rounded and with better practical skills.

However, I don’t believe it will increase client confidence in any substantial form. For large-scale work, client confidence goes with the brand name of the firm and/or the reputation of partners. Those larger firms will still be offering training contracts. The current recruitment structure will stand. It appears that little will change in respect of recruitment at the very top firms that many students aspire to work for.

For smaller-scale work, I fail to see how client confidence will be increased by a trainee taking a WBL route over say several years working as a paralegal or the ILEX route. I cannot imagine a client taking any more than a passing interest in such a distinction.

2. Consistency of training standards

At the moment the quality of a training contract varies widely between different firms. Once again the perception is that brand name of firm is more important than anything else as quality of training cannot be assured. Even two trainees at the same firm can have completely different experiences.

WBL will, in theory, help provide a more consistent experience for trainees. However, with the existing training contract regime running alongside it the result could be that there is actually less consistency rather than more, with a diffuse set of NQs with even more variety in the type and quality of their training – now depending not only on firm and circumstances but also on the route taken.

WBL will create consistency amongst those who take the WBL route; it will do nothing in respect of those on part-time or full-time training contracts.

If the SRA wishes to maintain two distinct routes, a more positive step would be for it to look at ways in which both routes could have a greater degree of overlap.

3. Addressing the real issue

The main issue with WBL is that it doesn’t truly address the problems addressing trainees and law students.

The problem is the bottleneck. It is accepted that there needs to be a degree of oversupply for a healthy marketplace. But the degree of oversupply is skewing the market vastly in favour of legal education providers and against the applicants for training contracts. The recession has made this imbalance even more apparent. I don’t believe that a consistency of training is of more importance to an applicant than a training contract place. I believe most trainees or applicants see the training contract as a form of apprenticeship – a crucial foot in the door - and look more to their long term prospects.

And this is where WBL most clearly fails. WBL may well reduce the demand for training contract places but it is likely it will result in an oversupply of WBL trainees who then qualify as solicitors.

The consequence is a massive oversupply of newly-qualified solicitors and instead of removing the bottleneck or managing it, WBL will just move it to the next stage of a junior solicitor’s career. It may well even exacerbate the imbalance by increasing the numbers.

All that will happen is that when those employers come to decide which newly-qualified solicitors to hire they will look at how they qualified. Those who were accepted onto training contracts will be seen as better candidates; they will have the ‘brand’ of being ‘good enough’ to be accepted. Those who took the WBL route will have to prove special circumstances or an exceptional record in order to compete fairly.

In summary

I support the SRA wanting to improve standards and consistency. I support it taking measures to increase access to the profession. I just fail to see how, in the longer term, WBL will genuinely address the real problems affecting applicants.

I agree with Helen Morris that WBL can help trainees take responsibility for their own development, is more responsive to career aspiration (up to a point), and may well reduce the demand for training contract places (if that is indeed a good thing). Most importantly it does help those who have children or life circumstances which make the traditional qualification route difficult. This cannot be diminished in any way and is the best thing about WBL.

However, for all its benefits, I believe it does not solve the wider issues of an over-saturated market place, it merely provides a greater opportunity to become an unemployed newly-qualified solicitor rather than an unemployed LPC graduate.

Beth Wanono is a trainee at a large national firm and Law Society council member for LPC students and trainees.

Over to you

What do you think? I am especially keen to hear responses from those working in non-commercial law. Your comments are very welcome.