The news in February that the Law Society Council had decided to put the controversial Training Framework Review (TFR) out for a 12-week consultation drew a collective sigh of relief from the many stakeholders in legal education – and the profession at large.
While the broad objectives of the TFR are certainly laudable – to ensure that the route to qualification as a solicitor is accessible through as wide and diverse an intake as possible, and at the same time maintain the standards and rigour commensurate with the profession – problems and controversy had arisen over the initial lack of consultation. Many felt that changes were being railroaded through without due consideration to all the stakeholders.
Particular concern has arisen over the recommendation that the current system be replaced with an “outcomes-based” approach: there would no longer be a requirement for entrants to complete a postgraduate course of study; instead, individuals would undergo a “rigorous” assessment of the skills and knowledge a would-be solicitor must have before entering the profession, followed by a period of work-based training. The student would need to achieve a set of “day-one” outcomes before qualifying, including analytical skills, core legal knowledge, an ability to conduct transactions and resolve disputes and an understanding of ethics. However, how students reach the day-one outcomes would no longer be prescribed.
This has given rise to a number of concerns. First, a lack of clarity concerning approved routes into the profession could result in students taking a series of dead-ends. Greater choice, increased flexibility and cost savings will undoubtedly prove attractive to students (who, for example, would incur as much as 9,000 in debt to complete the LPC if they did not have to?), but what if the choices you make as a student differ from the ones being made by the very law firms you want to work at? Changes are almost inevitable now and it would be useful to look at all the existing and proposed offerings and consider them on a ‘problems caused v benefits gained’ ratio.
Another concern is the effect that the lack of clear entry standards into the profession will have on public confidence in the quality of our future solicitors.
Will we inadvertently be creating a two-tier legal training system (similar to the oft-vilified and now ‘eradicated’ system of polytechnics and universities), with those candidates who want a ‘cheap and cheerful’ entry into the profession taking one route, and the ‘elite’, whose careers rely on training contracts with top international law firms, have to complete the full-length training regime that is currently on offer?
It has to be said that one of the main obstacles to innovation in legal education at the moment is the excessive prescription currently laid down by the Law Society. To a degree, the proposal that the Law Society steps away from regulating the LPC has its advantages; however, to do away with a clear qualification structure to provide certainty for students and ensure high, consistent standards would be a mistake. Flexibility to enable course providers to create a programme tailored to the needs of students and of the profession is desirable, but there is a real danger that the focus on outcomes in the current proposals will create a rush for crammer courses, with students learning how to pass assessments rather than learning what they need to know in the workplace. Moreover, crammer courses are a singularly expensive form ofeducation, undermining the TFR’s grand aim of removing financial barriers to entry to the profession.
The proponents of the changes say these proposals will bring about a range of routes to qualification that will open up access to the profession, reduce cost and stimulate innovation and flexibility. Opponents of the proposals claim that the current regime already offers many routes to qualification (nine at the last count), that it promotes certainty for both students and law firms and that the main obstacle to innovation at the moment is in fact the excessive prescription by the Law Society.
The Law Society’s decision to open the issue to consultation is welcome. With debate from all stakeholders we can move forward, combining the best of the current system with the best of the new plans.
Professor Michael Gunn is dean of Nottingham Law School