“Building a growing army of enemies”

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21 February 2011

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Baying mob: disaffected students could become enemies of the legal profession

The Inner Temple’s seminar on the future of legal education provided a stimulating finish to last week.

It was the first such discussion since the announcement of the review of education and training being conducted jointly by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board (BSB) and ILEX Professional Standards, under the beady eye of the Legal Services Board.

These were some of the key areas of debate

The oversupply of students

“Lawyers are a good thing,” said last year’s Bar Council chairman Nick Green, “but you can have too much of a good thing.”

The issue of too many students and not enough pupillages (and training contracts) was a recurring theme. If there is a crisis in barrister education, said BSB chairman Baroness Deech, it is that “very able young people” who would have secured a pupillage 20, 10 or even five years ago, cannot now do so. This risked building a “growing army of enemies of the profession”, she warned.

There was considerable support for the BSB’s planned introduction of English language and aptitude testing for those applying to join the bar professional training course (BPTC) – “We have a folder of letters from inarticulate law students who shouldn’t be on the course,” Baroness Deech said.

Then there was better information for students about their prospects. Of course, one might expect a would-be lawyer to do their research, but one current student suggested a more personalised interview-style approach, rather than statistics on a website, would help to bring the reality home. The idea that training providers give enough information (at least before the cheque is handed over) was met with plenty of scepticism.

Nick Green also linked the oversupply with the growth of paralegals, a group he predicted will “exert a profound effect upon not only solicitors but also upon the Bar in the next few years” because they help keep costs down.

“With entity regulation and direct access on the near horizon, the Bar will be approached by clients who will ask the Bar to conduct a case on their behalf and, where the Bar cannot or does not wish to itself provide the full litigation support function, nominate solicitors or, where appropriate, paralegals to work with them,” he said.

Mr Green said he could envisage chambers’ ProcureCos and SupplyCos organising their own firms, or even sets of chambers, of paralegals. Equally he foresaw externally owned and/or controlled firms of paralegals developing to provide services to both the Bar and solicitors.

The seminar also heard from Jasvinder Kaur, an employed barrister at solicitors Lyons Davidson, where she leads a team of mainly BPTC students undertaking the kind advocacy for which they do not need rights of audience, such as acting for insurers in the small claims court or in chambers.

Student debt

Various ideas to reduce the cost of legal training were thrown into the mix, such as the greater use of technology and encouraging more universities to provide sandwich courses embracing both the degree and vocational training. Baroness Deech warned that tuition fees would discourage women lawyers in particular because of the prospect of working, paying childcare and also losing income to repay tuition fees.

Though there is plenty of talk about alternative routes to qualification – such as work-based learning – Dr Andrew Francis from Keele University pointed to research he had done among legal executives and part-time law students that showed how simply providing the route is not enough because such alternatives can be perceived in the profession as inferior.

Common training

The never-ending fusion debate is currently focused on whether the Bar and solicitors should amalgamate their training into a single course. Nick Green said: “Students are often ill-equipped to make career choices prior to graduation. If all law graduates undertook a single course and reflected their interests in advocacy, transactional work or other areas, sas the case may be, in their choice of options, then this could defer for 12 months the point in time when the professional paths diverged. Even a 12-month deferral could be very valuable when you are only 20 or 21.”

However, James Wakefield, BPTC director at Kaplan Law School, spoke passionately from the other corner. For him, it was in the interests of justice that training remains separate. “There comes a point in some people’s lives when they need a legal warrior [in court],” he said, arguing that the best way to prepare advocates for this role was very specialist training from the start. Fused training would simply be too general – as it is, he said, “the legal practice course struggles to meet the diverse needs of those who want to become solicitors”.

Access to the professions

Guy Beringer, the former senior partner of Allen & Overy and one of the more progressive thinkers in the City on equality issues, came up with a cheeky idea – the “Equal Chance Scheme”. Under this, all law firms and chambers would notify a central organisation of how many work placements they have, which would also hold a register of students interested in such placements. They would then be randomly matched. “This would prove whether people really are interested in broader access,” he said.

Professor Nigel Savage

Though not present at the seminar, the name of the College of Law’s chief executive was frequently bandied around, and not usually in a complimentary way. It is fair to say that the noble Savage has become something of an Aunt Sally.

Why is this? Perhaps it is continued talk of the size of his salary – an issue raised on Friday by Advocacy Training Council chairman Charles Haddon-Cave QC – or just his bluff, uncompromising style.

The College has gone from strength to strength under his leadership, but its aggressive expansion in various directions means the cost has arguably been diminution of the College’s reputation among some lawyers.

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3 Responses to ““Building a growing army of enemies””

  1. It is curious that years ago school leavers went into law much as they might go into banking, by finding a firm and an articled clerkship therein to train by on the job experience coupled with law courses in Guildford, thus the market for solicitors regulated itself somewhat more effectively the academic stage wasn’t an issue.

    By separating the academic part from the vocational/professional part of a legal education there is now a glut of law school products as there is an obvious oversupply of law schools themselves. The result of permitting too many students to take law degrees with a view to a career in law is patently unfair. No one seems to consider this point. Why was it ever thought necessary to separate academic legal training from the real world of working in the law?

    The Law Society and the Bar have had, for the longest time, the issue of a glut of students aspiring to practice in the law. The Darwinian process at the bar via limiting pupilages and access to chambers worked its evil ways excluding many talented people from a career at the Bar but it sort of works. The Law Society on the other hand was harder to qualify for but there were jobs to be had. That was how it used to be but currently both professions are oversubscribed. Something went wrong did it not?

    The truth is there are too many law schools and that is all there is to it. You either close them or you set entry standards and numbers to conform with the possibility of entry to the professions. The other approach is strictly back to Dr Darwin, and allow the competition to do its worst. Nothing new there!

    Personally, I believe both professions should come up with some way to qualify everyone to full practising status but then allow the market to decide who ends up doing the job. At least with this approach everyone gets to the end of the qualification road, not cast aside on the way by arbitrary events more often than not. There is no easy solution to the numbers problem, I suspect there never will be. It is reprehensible to permit people to take law degrees and then set up a whole series of hoops to jump through before they even qualify. Smacks of the worst of elitism, however well disguised and unfair or dare I say, unjust?

  2. Howard R Gray on February 21st, 2011 at 8:54 pm
  3. Getting a pupillage let alone a tenancy has been difficult for a very long time. My anecdotal experience from doing the BVC back in 1993 is that of my tutorial group of 10, 4 failed to get pupillage and only 2 ultimately went on to get tenancies. All were from good universities.

    Better information would help, but the bare statistics ought to be enough for any intelligent applicant – if it is clear from the outset that say only 20% of applicants for TCs and Pupillages from an institution offering the LPC or Bar course were successful, particularly if this is then made more granular by showing the other qualifications of the successful and unsuccessful candidates (eg if 90% of the successful candidates had a 2.1 or greater from Oxbridge it shows that the course is one where a non-Oxbridge candidate has a single digit % chance of progressing).

    I believe that the academic stage of training for the Bar and Solicitors should be merged. Not only to provide the greatest opportunities for students to progress into the professions but also to provide training that is useful for all practising lawyers. Having qualified and worked as a solicitor and as a barrister it is clear that each profession has some funny ideas about what the other does or knows and there’s an unwillingness to see how much either does is common to both. A lot of barristers requalify as solicitors or practice in-house. The main academic requirements for the transfer test are solicitors’ ethics and accounts. Both ethics and accounts are things that barristers also need to know so there’s no reason why students can’t or shouldn’t be taught the two different flavours side by side.

    A combined course doesn’t need any subject matter options – trainee solicitors and pupil barristers use next to none of the specialist papers they study. This would free up time to be used on the basic skills.

  4. Angelo Basu on February 22nd, 2011 at 10:27 am
  5. Well said Angelo.

  6. Howard R Gray on May 1st, 2011 at 5:25 pm

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