One Size Doesn't Fit All in Legal Education

(Image: thanks to Morgan Linton)

After digesting the Legal Education and Training Review report (LETR) for three months, England’s largest legal regulator, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), has delivered its response. This is important because the big legal regulators—SRA, Bar Standards Board, Ilex Professional Services—shape the structure of the qualifying law degree, and they commissioned LETR.

Without revisiting the LETR report in detail,[1] it recommended no radical change. Instead the SRA, according to its chief executive, Anthony Townsend, is to propose a radical programme of reform.
It has three elements:

1. No one size fits all to becoming a lawyer. There should be many routes into practice where the SRA sets only the “day one skill requirements.” These could be provided by the academy, through apprenticeships, or in job cumulative progression. Adopting their “principles-based, outcomes-focused” approach to regulation, the SRA intends not to prescribe but allow a thousand educational flowers to bloom within the legal market.

This will give the universities and colleges plenty of scope to innovate, should they choose to do so. Unfortunately, the British academy is slow in this area, not always recognising that change has occurred. I wouldn’t be surprised if the private legal education providers don’t surge ahead here as against the universities.

2. Continuing professional development (or continuing legal education) must stop being a tick box exercise and in its place there must be an emphasis on substantive competence. CPD has always been a joke among practitioners who, as the year ends, scrabble to find ways to complete their quota of CPD points via self-assessment articles in legal magazines.
One line in Townsend’s speech I specifically like is, “the onus will be on firms to ensure that their whole workforce is competent.” This means nonlawyers as well as lawyers should demonstrate competence where they are providing legal services to the public. This recognises that the legal services market is a varied and pluralistic one.

3. There must be a “bonfire of education and training regulations.” Without doubt legal education is over-regulated. In countries where law is primarily an undergraduate degree, as opposed to a professional degree, there is little justification for the tight scrutiny that regulators have held over legal education. As many as 50% of graduating law students these days don’t enter the legal profession, so there is little justification for subjecting them to unnecessary protocols. The SRA rightly sees that as the territory of the education regulators. Moreover, the SRA wants to stop prescribing the content of the training contract.

The SRA intends to lighten regulation by the end of 2014, which is light speed for the legal profession. It has only been 40 years since they last looked at legal education.

Soon after I wrote this, Nigel Savage, supremo of the global University of Law (too many titles to list them all), warned the SRA to ‘get clarity on standards to avoid dumbing down legal training.’ A couple of points occur to me here. One is he is frightened of other for profit legal educators undercutting his market which is built on premium product. The other is his use of "legal training" rather than education and training. Maybe he's right to be scared. It's not the academy that threatens him but the vocational apprenticeship trainers who will be starting up. They will offer routes into the legal services market at much less cost than the University of Legal Cosmology (see our new campus on Mars--free one-way tickets--end of lawyer surplus....).

[1] I let the reader peruse its 350 pages as ideal bedtime reading.


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