Poker-faced regulators

On Tuesday, I was speaking at a seminar on access to the legal profession, and reforming legal education and training, hosted by Westminster Legal Policy Forum. The venue was the Hall of India and Pakistan at Over-Seas House near Piccadilly. The rather old fashioned setting harking back to a colonial past blended with all the trappings of a business conference in the 21st Century, seemed an appropriate setting for a discussion about how the deeply conservative legal professions will address the modern world post-Legal Services Act by tackling the issue of legal education and training.

Regulation diversity and competitiveness were the key themes throughout the morning, and proceedings started with an informative update from Professor Julian Webb on the Legal Education & Training Review (LETR). The LETR is a joint project of the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and ILEX Professional Standards (IPS), who were all well represented at the seminar. It constitutes a fundamental, evidence-based review of education and training requirements across regulated and non-regulated legal services in England and Wales.

The legal services sector is experiencing an unprecedented degree of change. LETR is required to ensure that the future system of legal education and training will be effective and efficient in preparing legal service providers to meet the needs of consumers.  Final recommendations will be made in December 2012. It will be for each regulator subsequently to set out a process for addressing recommendations in the report, and to consult formally on any proposed changes

Professor Webb emphasised that the fundamental remit of the study is to determine how regulation of legal education and training can best be achieved while still remaining proportionate. The whole project is a huge undertaking in terms of scope and to date responses to it have been reflecting largely vested interests, as is only to be expected. He was clearly disappointed that to date there was little in the way of an alternative vision from any quarter. However, the second discussion paper is now published and an extensive programme of research is underway, eliciting responses from a full range of stakeholders. Consultation is being carried out extensively through the Consultation Steering Panel, and more widely via research and publications, with focus groups and an online survey feeding into the process, the team is now getting much busier.

So, as the academics and researchers working on the LETR are beavering away, how are the core regulators gearing up in preparation, what are their priorities? We were able to have the benefit of presentations from Dr Valerie Shrimplin head of Education Standards at the BSB, Samantha Barrass Executive Director (Education and Training, Supervision Risk and International Affairs) at the SRA and Ian Watson, Chief Executive Officer of IPS.  To be completely honest I didn’t make many notes during these three presentations as there was not much in the way of real substance; cards being held fairly tightly to chests throughout.

All three indicated that they will give the LETR findings careful consideration. There was much talk of fitness for purpose, the needs of the “consumer” (what is wrong with “client”?) diversity and opportunity. One distinguished figure siiting next to me remarked that they were fed up with hearing the same platitudes over and over again.

The only time I paid much attention was when Samantha Barrass spent a significant amount of her allotted time trying to justify the SRA decision last week to abolish the minimum salary. Her assertion that keeping the minimum salary could actually result in barriers to entry and diversity in the profession raised a few eyebrows including my own. It seemed strange that she felt the need to talk about this issue now the decision had been made, when the SRA were so reluctant to discuss it beforehand.

How much weight will the SRA give to the findings of the LETR when making their decisions about regulation of legal training for solicitors in the future? A clue was in Barrass’ mention of more flexible degrees including Northumbria’s five-year degree incorporating the Qualifying Law Degree, LPC and Training Contract all in one. She was keen to trumpet the success of the SRA work based learning pilot scheme as a way to increase diversity and access to the profession. We were told that we’ll know more about the work based learning pilot findings after their Education and Training Committee meeting in June. I suspect that the SRA have already decided that work based learning is the future and if their approach when consulting on the minimum salary is anything to go by then this is the route they will be taking irrespective of what the LETR says.