Leading law firm training partners and course providers fear that a lack of flexibility in the solicitors’ qualification regime is hampering the English legal profession’s competitiveness – and they are pressing regulators to reform the process.
The latest example came at the end of 2011, when top 10 UK firm Eversheds – which has 46 offices worldwide (10 of which are in the UK) and an annual turnover of £354.5m – struck a deal with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to launch a programme that is likely to shave nearly a year off the qualification process and put trainees on the firm’s payroll while they are doing the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
Dubbed the ’combined study training contract’ (CSTC), Eversheds’ new programme will kick off this August, with the firm having filled 12 places by the end of January from its standard annual firmwide intake of 60 trainees. For the initial trial period, the programme will be run in the firm’s London, Leeds and Birmingham offices.
The CSTC will allow trainees to complete the majority of the LPC while they are being paid to sit relevant training contract seats. Between August and December this year, the trainees – all of whom will be taking the accelerated LPC with Eversheds’ sole provider BPP Law School – will complete the course’s core modules. In January 2013, they will begin their two-year training contract with the firm while at the same time studying LPC electives.
The arrangement is the product of nine months of planning and negotiations between the firm and the SRA. The regulator granted Eversheds two policy waivers in the process of giving the programme the green light. One relates to the professional skills course, which normally cannot be started until students have graduated from the LPC (CSTC trainees will still take the course), while the other covers simultaneous work and study. Under current rules, the SRA recognises only some of the time worked during a period of study, so normally it would have expected this Eversheds training contract to last longer than its two years.
“The SRA were open to our proposals, although we had to engage in a lot of meetings with them,” explains Eversheds graduate recruitment manager Nicky Bizzell. “But BPP and the SRA have been very supportive.”
Both Eversheds and BPP launched the programme with a degree of fanfare and enthusiasm. The firm’s training principal, partner Ian Gascoigne, comments: “By combining trainees’ activities during their training contracts with the electives they study, we believe our scheme will enhance the quality of the training provided and create a more relevant and rewarding course.
Equally gushing is BPP chief executive Peter Crisp: “By enabling trainees to immerse themselves in the firm while studying, they can take what they learn on the LPC and apply it straight away in a practical context, which ultimately will help them better serve the needs of their clients.”
For its part, the SRA seems equally enthusiastic about the experiment. Quality and standards manager of the authority’s education and training unit Tom McDonald says: “The SRA always welcomes ideas for effective, high-quality training that help ensure different kinds of students can train to become solicitors while maintaining the high standards we expect of those entering the profession.”
Indeed, flexibility is the relevant issue. Bizzell points out that the very fact that Eversheds pushed so hard to get this scheme off the ground ”illustrates that we think things could be done better” in relation to solicitor qualification generally.
“What we see with the current legal education and training structure is a lack of flexibility,” she continues. “In the past, there was a number of different ways people could qualify. Now most people are forced down one path, which happens before they get to the training contract.”
Bizzell is highly critical of the approach of universities to the undergraduate law degree. “As a profession,” she argues, “we are teaching our students a long-winded, academic way of writing. And we penalise them in some cases for behaving in a way that would actually be expected of them by the top law firms. Having spoken to some professors at some universities, they feel very strongly that it isn’t their role to prepare a student for working life. In their view, their role is to give students a good academic base.”
According to Bizzell, the CSTC was attractive to the firm as a means of addressing some of those practical academic failings. “It’s a way of integrating people into our business much earlier, and paying them much earlier. The principle is almost that of an apprenticeship – you talk about it, you learn about it, and then you go and do it. A student can be sitting in an academic lecture and then go back straight away to apply the learning.”
The SRA will review the scheme once it has finished a full term before making any decision on its long term future. But with the mood among the profession and its education providers swinging behind the creation of greater options, it would be a fair bet that the CSTC will be a model for the future.