Testing times

The SRA is piloting two new routes to qualification as a solicitor. But not everyone is happy about the proposals.

”Training contracts to face ­abolition from Law Soc” was the headline run by Lawyer 2B in summer 2004. So you would be ­forgiven for thinking that we’ve been here before.

Regulators are notorious for their slow decision-making, but when it comes to overhauling legal training the Solicitors ­Regulation Authority (SRA) is, frankly, taking
the biscuit.

The new solicitors training regime will not be rolled out until September 2011 at the earliest, more than a decade after the process was kickstarted by the Law Society under the Training Framework Review banner.

Saying that, as it enters its second and final year, the SRA’s work-based learning pilot is finally beginning to gather pace and, more importantly, gather more supporters. So, if like most students you have not been paying attention to some of the SRA’s proposals, then now is the time to sit up and listen: if you are ­planning to train as a solicitor in the future then the way you receive your training is likely to be radically different to what is currently on offer.

The key difference of the pilot scheme is that it is outcomes-based rather than time-served. Therefore, one possible scenario is that in the future, qualification may no longer be automatic after two years of on-the-job training.

Instead, the pilot candidates are being assessed during their work-based learning against a set of outcomes, which cover the key skills they will need to practise as solicitors. These are: application of legal expertise; communication; client relations; business awareness; workload management; working with others; self awareness and development; and professional conduct.

Dual qualification

The regulator is piloting two separate models, each lasting two years with around 100 participants. The first, which generated the most ­controversy at the time it was announced, will enable paralegals or those working in other law-related fields such as contracts negotiators to qualify as solicitors while working in their current roles.

The paralegals will take responsibility for their own training and development and will be assessed externally by Nottingham Law School or the Oxford Institute of Legal Practice, meaning the duties of their employers will be much lighter.

Writing in Lawyer 2B’s sister title The Lawyer (7 September), head of the SRA’s training and education Clare Gillian says: “This is a key feature of the new scheme and the SRA hopes it will open up opportunities for Legal Practice Course [LPC] graduates who cannot find training contracts to have their experience ­recognised and to qualify as a solicitor. This flexibility is seen as a key factor, both for the ­profession and for the candidates themselves, providing opportunities for individuals to tailor their training to their own needs and personal circumstances. By ensuring there is a robust and objective assessment prior to qualification, the SRA can be more flexible in the requirements it places on would-be solicitors.”

Giles Millerchip, general counsel at designer outlet village group McArthurGlen, is ­participating in this half of the pilot. The University of Manchester graduate joined McArthurGlen in 2000 as a legal assistant and then took on the role of legal manager at the company after holding various paralegal positions both in-house and in private practice, but had never taken the leap to qualifying as a fully-fledged solicitor.

So when Millerchip discovered that it would be possible for him to qualify as a solicitor without starting from scratch as a trainee at a new ­organisation, he wasted no time in signing up. And a year in, the guinea pig strongly believes the scheme is working well for him.

“It’s created an option that wasn’t available before for people like me who are in non-mainstream roles,” explains Millerchip. “And so far I’ve found it a very ­positive experience; everyone has the attitude that they want to make it work and where there are problems to find solutions. It’s demonstrated that the SRA recognises that there are people who don’t fit into the conventional training contract mould who would otherwise miss out on contributing to the profession. So I certainly think it’s a good idea to create an alternative route.”

The second model being piloted works ­similarly to the training contract, but ­qualification as a solicitor is no longer automatic, with trainees being subject to more rigorous assessment criteria. Firms participating in the pilot include Beachcroft, Freeth Cartwright and Jones Day. Magic circle firm Linklaters was also set to be involved but it pulled out of the experiment earlier this year along with Campbell Hooper.

Candidates qualifying under either regime will be required to compile a portfolio of their work. This could include contracts and letters of advice they have drafted as well as video footage of them leading a negotiation. The aim of the portfolios is to ensure the candidates are competent in areas such as communication and time-keeping.

There is no doubt that the SRA proposals will introduce greater flexibility to the training regime, especially with would-be solicitors being able to complete their training with more than one organisation. Indeed, on the face of it this fits in very nicely with the new-look LPC being rolled out by a number of law schools, which allows ­students to complete the course in separate stages and with different providers.

The backlash

In her article for The Lawyer, Gilligan argues that the SRA is monitoring progress very carefully and it is a case of ‘so far, so good’ from both employers and candidates. “The SRA is confident that it can improve the quality and consistency of standards, and feedback so far is showing confidence to be well-placed,” she writes.

However, not everyone is happy. The pilot scheme is facing fierce opposition from a number of City law firms, which are worried that the needs of employers with large trainee intakes are being ignored.

As reported on Lawyer2B.com in September, the SRA was forced to defend its position and reassure these firms that the new structure will not force them to hire trainees on permanent contracts.

Currently, firms are free to show trainees the door at the end of their training contracts. Likewise, trainees are free to walk if they feel that the firm is not right for them. City firms are worried that if this changes it will be more difficult to force out trainees who do not make the grade.

At a recent meeting of the Legal Education & Training Group (LETG), which represents legal training professionals, members claimed the pilot ignored the needs of firms with large trainee intakes. The issue is of particular concern to the LETG.

“While we have some sympathy over what the SRA is trying to achieve,” says LETG chair Peter Carrick, “we certainly have concerns about the structure and the SRA’s suggestions regarding fixed-term training contracts and the level of bureaucracy the new regime will introduce.”

The SRA, however, claims that the pilot is only looking at standards and that the contractual and regulatory framework under which trainees are hired will be addressed separately.

“The pilot is only looking at the learning and development of trainees,” says SRA policy executive Tim Pearce. “Any changes to the way trainees are employed will be looked at separately.”

The other area of concern is, of course, whether the new regime will create a two-tier ­system. The danger is that City firms will go off at a tangent and do their own thing while the rest play catch-up with a fragmented regime that fails to address what concerns most students – the cost of training.

Gilligan claims the SRA has taken this concern on board. She writes: “It is absolutely key that the SRA demonstrates that work-based learning leads to one qualification with one set of clear outcomes that all who qualify achieve. It is not in the interest of clients or the profession to let a two-tier system develop and ahead of any implementation the SRA will look closely at the pilot evaluation to make sure it is confident this will not happen.”

It is too early to predict exactly what shape future training contracts will take and, indeed, how long it will be before any changes are even introduced. But it is safe to assume that when the changes do come they will form the biggest shakeup of legal training in well over a decade.