The potential lies in diversity – it’s not about dumbing down

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17 October 2014

Riddleston: greater access to the profession

Posted by Peter Riddleston, head of learning, quality and development for Legal Futures Associate LawNet

There’s been a lot of chatter around the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) proposal to allow paralegals to qualify as solicitors, without undertaking a formal training contract, and many voices argue that this will lead to a further dumbing down of the profession.

It may be a long time since I undertook a training contract, but as a former legal practice course tutor, who works at the sharp end of learning and development in the legal sector, I maintain an active interest in these issues.

It doesn’t have to be the case that the proposal will result in a lowering of standards and I welcome the changes. I think they could open the way to greater access to the profession, an issue that has been on the agenda for many years.

The SRA’s proposal is not about allowing anyone with an LPC qualification and a few months’ experience to become a solicitor; what’s proposed is exemption from the academic and vocational stages of training, if the required outcomes, in terms of knowledge and skills, have been achieved through other means, such as work-based learning.

Certainly, quality assurance will be a vital component of the process. If the SRA puts in place sufficient checks and controls to ensure that the appropriate standards have been met, and that the individual has gained the appropriate skills and knowledge, then any suggestion of dumbing down can be set aside.

It also places the responsibility on the firm to ensure that, where possible, the individual has received a balanced training across different areas of practice, and is able to demonstrate that the necessary outcomes have been achieved and to the right standard. However, there is no doubt that the changes also give individuals the opportunity to qualify by doing a range of short-term roles with different employers.

Either way, I think this is a positive move towards diversity and equal opportunity in the profession. It will no longer be necessary for those seeking to qualify as a solicitor to run up the extreme debts that can be incurred by completing a degree and the legal practice course, plus the graduate diploma in law for non-law graduates. Qualification as a solicitor can become an attainable goal for more people and greater diversity must surely be a positive.

There will be inevitable concerns about the availability of jobs for new qualifiers, but this alone should not be a reason for restricting access to the profession. CILEx qualifications and apprenticeships already provide great opportunities for law firms to recruit staff who have not followed the traditional route to a career in the law. Devising a measure to weigh up knowledge, experience and skills against those required at the completion of the training contract, as is now proposed, should do the same.

A robust system to ensure that standards have been met is vital, but if someone can prove conclusively that they have done this and can be admitted as a solicitor, I think the profession will be better for it.

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