City firms attack SRA training proposals as “undermining position of English law as a qualification”

Proposals to change legal training are potentially dangerous to the UK legal industry’s global reputation, City firms have said.

In a report by the Law Society, City, magic circle and international firms warn that making qualification more flexible, as proposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), could diminish the standard of training and so the standing of UK lawyers abroad.

The report surveyed 13 law firms, two of the big four accountancy firms, five recruitment agencies, two academics and the University of Law on their thoughts about potential changes to training. The changes being considered currently run the gamut from making no changes whatsoever to replacing the current qualification process entirely.

One City partner, when asked their thoughts on replacing the training contract, responded: “In the international sphere, UK lawyers are already considered less academically trained than other lawyers.

“If the SRA’s proposals go ahead, you are totally undermining the position of English law as a qualification.”

Another concurred, saying: “You potentially devalue the qualification drastically. This would lead to a significant risk of dilution in standards and reputation with potentially catastrophic consequences”.

Firms pointed to the training contract as being a key part of ensuring UK lawyers were of a high standard and many pointed out that some overseas offices sent their recruits to their London office to participate in the training contract because of the quality of training. “Moscow, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Milan, Madrid… all want the England and Wales qualification because of the quality of training,” one partner said.

Respondents also believed that the New York bar, currently seen as comparatively desirable on a global scale, would overtake the UK training contract due to its academic rigour, which is viewed as “harder than the LPC [Legal Practice Course]… a completely different exam, but there’s nothing practical about it, it’s entirely academic. One of the issues with the New York Bar is someone can regurgitate information, and as long as they do that, they can pass. But they haven’t got a clue as to how to advise a client.

“The journey of the training contract, the maturity they develop, is great. The maturity we see developing during those two years is key, they get a multi-disciplinary approach, it makes them broader people.”

Another interviewee went so far as to ask: “If you take away the training contract, what are you left with?”

Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: “The solicitor training contract contributes to developing practical professionally trained commercial lawyers and is the global gold standard, distinguishing the England and Wales qualification from its international rivals.

UK law is respected globally. This reputation has been established over centuries based on the quality of legal practitioners, their excellent education, and the independence and standard of the courts and judiciary.

“There is a significant risk that the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s proposed changes to qualifications could chip away at our reputation as a centre of legal excellence – an industry worth more than £30bn to the UK economy and supporting 300,000 jobs.”

SRA education and training director Julie Brannan said: “We have not yet made any decisions about the future training of solicitors and all contributions to the debate are helpful.

“Assuring robust and consistent standards at the point of qualification can only enhance the high standing of the profession internationally. We have commissioned independent research on the economic impact of our proposals and on the rigour and consistency of any new centralised assessment for solicitors, very conscious of the importance of public confidence in the profession, both domestically and internationally.”

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