Hertfordshire Uni: Why we’re embracing SRA’s training reform proposals

The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority’s (SRA) response to the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) offers us a unique opportunity to break the ongoing rumblings of dissatisfaction with legal education and training processes in England & Wales.

It is an opportunity for every Law School to reflect on the future shape and form that law degrees, as well as legal education and training in a broader sense, should take.

It is not a time to be timid or to seek comfort in the familiar. It is a time to embrace change.

While there has been change over time, legal education has never seemed able to achieve the same balance between the two concepts of tradition and evolution that we appear almost effortlessly to accomplish on a day-to-day basis in the development of the common law.

In the light of this, it is suggested that the following observations and recommendations, which have been adopted by the University of Hertfordshire, be borne in mind:

  • Many law degrees within England & Wales have been, quite rightly, accused of being over-stuffed with redundant information, much of which is historical in nature.
  • There has been a continuing conflict between the perceived “academic” and “professional” demands of legal education and their associated ‘theoretical’ and “practical” methods of instruction.
  • Given the fact that it has been generally accepted that the academic stage of legal education was to be followed by a compulsory professional stage, currently in the form of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) which tests largely practical skills, the SRA was satisfied to allow the early academic stage of training to be mainly theory-based.
  • The problem with this approach to legal education is that unless both the Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) and LPC deliver an effective and truly complementary legal education, students remain ill-equipped to solve problems in practical legal life with lateral thinking being largely ignored and students being led to wrongly believe that the law leads, rather than serves, society.
  • This defect in the learning process leads to poor legal practice and, in turn, to dissatisfaction amongst the legal profession with graduates entering the marketplace.
  • The SRA’s proposed two-stage assessment model promises to clarify the parts of the qualification route which require simple ‘rules-based’ learning (Stage 1), from those which seek to develop critical reasoning skills (Stage 2). The championing of critical reasoning, as the key skill valued by employers, adheres to the SRA’s ‘outcomes-based’ learning principles above alternative methods.
  • The SRA’s proposal to replace the need for a QLD as the academic stage of entry to the profession, with that of a Stage 1 centralised test, represents a challenge to law schools across England and Wales to streamline and focus the content within their courses, and one that must be met if they are to remain relevant.
  • The challenge not only exists in terms of subject content, but also in terms of both the perceived, and actual, value of a law degree going forward, as compared with the opportunity to undertake an apprenticeship whilst seeking to pass the proposed Stage 1 centralised test.
  • This links with another significant challenge faced not only by Law Schools, but also the SRA, Law Society of England & Wales and broader legal community. Is the route to qualification as a solicitor in England & Wales to be based solely upon a “competence” based framework, or should it be based on the notion of “excellence” as per the approach taken by other professional bodies such as the Law Society of Scotland?
  • Given the fact that the government’s proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) requires Higher Education providers to aspire to teaching “excellence” does this requirement correlate with the SRA’s plans for graduate “competence”?
  • While “competence” within arbitrarily-drawn and set parameters might be capable of being judged, can “excellence”, a far more normative standard, be treated in the same way? If the legal profession chooses to pursue excellence, as opposed to solely focusing on competence, then is this the role to be played by law degrees going forward?
  • The proposed introduction of a Stage 2 centralised assessment, which focuses on the practical legal examination of specified skills areas, poses another significant challenge to Law Schools. Whilst Stage 1 appears to be aimed exclusively at the assessment of knowledge, Stage 2 will focus on the assessment of skills. The term ‘skills’ being used as an umbrella term to include both traditional practical legal skills such as interviewing and drafting, as well as broader “wicked” competencies such as critical thinking.
  • The SRA’s proposals require Law Schools to not only ensure that there is sufficient time and space within the curriculum for skills development (in the broadest sense) to take place but that such skills are effectively taught and assessed. In this regard, it is clear that the SRA believes that its current Legal Practice Course has failed to deliver on this promise.
  • As such, the integration of authentic assessment across all stages of legal education is essential so as to ensure that students are adequately prepared for this type of centralised test. The success experienced to date at institutions such as the University of Hertfordshire demonstrates the positive impact that authentic assessment has on both student achievement and student employability.
  • Equally, authentic assessment techniques and formative assessment methods are the most effective environment to develop these “argument construction”, and therefore critical reasoning, skills. This skill is by no means the preserve of lawyers, and is valued throughout business and industry, but is ideally taught in legal education as it provides the appropriate teaching framework. For this reason, the law degree is seen not only as versatile and cross-disciplinary, but also the gold standard for those seeking to be employed at the highest levels.
  • Students need to be taught more than simply how to “think like a lawyer”, to have the ability to confirm that they “know the answer”, or even to be able to talk to other lawyers. Rather, for legal education to be truly useful, and relevant, it must focus upon the development of individuals who have the ability to become lawyers. In effect, Higher Education, as opposed to school or Further Education, has a duty to teach students HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

Since the publication of the LETR, the University of Hertfordshire has focused on preparing for this moment, liaising with key professional bodies, anticipating the direction of travel within legal education and seeking to ensure that our students are as fully equipped as possible for the evolving legal landscape.

Under the SRA’s proposed model, neither the QLD nor the LPC will need to continue to exist as part of the route to qualification as a solicitor. Furthermore, the Legal Services Act has impacted significantly on the opportunities available to graduates across the sector, with greater emphasis being placed on the legal executive and paralegal positions. As such, it is essential that prospective students understand fully the value of a law degree under the SRA’s proposed framework.

The University of Hertfordshire has embraced the opportunities presented by the SRA’s proposed changes to legal education and adopted a number of key initiatives so as to enhance our students’ academic lives. The School’s extensive range of credit-bearing co-curricular activities, which have been designed to enhance the key critical reasoning skill, has been embedded into the formal LLB curriculum.

In addition, accumulation of credit can now lead to a separate University Diploma for all of our students alongside their law degree, at no additional financial cost. These courses positively augment academic degree performance, enhance student employability (which currently stands at 98.5 per cent), improves student engagement while at University, and the attributes of students after they graduate.

Alongside this, multiple professional body requirements have been embedded into the new LLB degree, as the SRA’s proposed “light-touch” Stage 1 requirements have meant that this is now a far more realistic proposition.

Consequently, our students will not only be as fully equipped as possible for the evolving legal landscape but also benefit from a curriculum that continues to be professionally accredited, addressing head-on a core element of the question: “competence” versus “excellence”.

We have welcomed and embraced change.

Professor Charles Wild is dean of law, and Dr Daniel Berger is a senior lecturer, at the University of Hertfordshire

Previously: 29 Feb 16: Hertfordshire suspends LPC and alters LLB in anticipation of SRA reforms