The recent letter from the Junior Lawyers Division to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) criticising plans to adopt a centralised assessment test for student lawyers illustrates just how the qualifying regime for becoming a solicitor or barrister is changing.
This will clearly affect what and how would-be lawyers choose to study at university and the choices that they make about a career in law.
There are two strands to the proposed changes:
- The views of regulators, such as the Bar Standards Board and the SRA are that training lawyers is not just about knowledge acquisition but also acquiring skills to apply that knowledge.
- For future solicitors, the SRA, based on this view, seems to favour a centralised assessment in two parts, testing both your legal knowledge and your ability to apply your that knowledge in practical situations, ie your workplace skills. These tests would be sat at some point during your training contract and the law firms are consulting with the SRA to see how it impacts on their training regime.
This means that law students will be expected to articulate how they have developed their writing, research and oral communication skills, as well as mastering legal topics. When you are applying for placements and mini pupillages, law firms and barristers’ chambers will want concrete examples of how you are learning and developing professional skills. This places a focus not only on your Graduate Diploma in Law conversion and Legal Practice Course but more importantly on your degree studies, to show how they are developing you as a more holistic future practitioner before you even reach employment.
The type of practical skills employers are likely to look for – quality of writing, advocacy, research, commercial awareness and client relations usually need to be developed over a number of years. If you have not yet taken a law degree, or you are a graduate preparing to transfer into the legal profession via a GDL course, the university you study at can be of utmost importance. You need to start developing these skills as early as you can, to hone them over time.
Not all undergraduate law courses have this skills focus; some rely on a more traditional ‘black letter’ approach of simply teaching legal knowledge. Other law schools have picked up on this market shift and are designing curricula and modules that properly integrate how law is practised in the wider world with the core legal subjects; I describe it to students as ‘practice-based learning’.
When you are searching for a degree programme or a conversion course, ask how the provider is taking on board this new model of integrating skills into their law programmes. Be ready to ask questions like:
- How much contact with practitioners is there in the programme?
- How much ‘pro bono’ or other clinic experience will I have access to?
- How prominent are professional skills sessions within the curriculum and can you provide an example?
Arm yourself with questions like these and contact universities to ask how aware they are of the shape of the new regime. Doing so will give you a better chance of learning what is really important about your course provider and how much of a head start you will get by choosing that course, whether at LLB level or for those of you considering the Graduate Diploma in Law.
Dr Giles Proctor is head of the University of Roehampton’s Law School.Previously…