Bigger than ABSs?

While alternative business structures are gaining all the headlines right now, something perhaps even more fundamental is going on this year: the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR). Many know it’s happening, but I suspect few quite understand how radically it could reshape the foundation of becoming a lawyer.

I don’t think I did until last week, when I attended the first of a series of five seminars organised by the Legal Services Board (LSB), this one in association with the Legal Services Institute.

But first a quick reminder – the LETR is being run by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards, under close observation from the LSB. Billed as the most fundamental examination of legal education and training since the Ormrod report of 1971, its remit is broad.

It will examine regulated and non-regulated legal services, and all stages of legal education and training. The primary objective is to ensure that England and Wales has a legal education and training system which advances the regulatory objectives contained in the Legal Services Act 2007, and particularly the need to protect and promote the interests of consumers and to ensure an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession.

The UKCLE Research Consortium, led by Professor Julian Webb of Warwick University, is conducting the research underpinning the review, while there is a consultation steering group chaired by Dame Janet Gaymer and Sir Mark Potter. The first significant output will be a literature review, due to be published shortly, while I understand a discussion paper will be forthcoming soon as well. The aim is to produce recommendations to the regulators by the end of the year, although there is some doubt as to whether that date will be met.

Anyway, back to last week’s event (which was not, it should be pointed out, organised by the LETR, although several members of it were there). For many of those present – a mix of people from regulation, representation, education and elsewhere – it was a first chance to express a view on the direction in which they think the LETR should (or should not) be going. To that extent I suspect some of what was said was a bit basic – one has to assume that the thinking of those involved in the review is somewhat more advanced.

But I took several significant points from the debate:

  • The professional monopoly is over. It seems very likely that the right to practise will be separated from having a title such as solicitor or barrister. That doesn’t mean the titles will become unimportant but there will be multiple routes to becoming a ‘lawyer’. As Professor Stephen Mayson put it, it’s not about title; “it’s about what functions we want people to perform and what they need to be competent to do them”.
  • We seem to be moving inexorably towards activity based regulation. Of course we already have it in the shape of licensed conveyancers, and will-writers will be next assuming the LSB decides their work should be a reserved legal activity. The days when it was thought that you needed an all-round legal education to advise competently are fading.
  • This has implications for the multiple regulators – the likes of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, have already questioned the sense of having multiple regulators of advocacy, for example. And given the bad feeling around the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates, you can see the point.
  • Similarly, with education and training likely to follow the trend towards an outcomes-focused approach, a push for common outcomes and common accreditation of providers across the various strains of the profession is likely. This too throws into question the sense of having eight different regulators; I have written before about the slow drift towards a single regulator for the entire legal profession and these trends are only likely to hasten it.
  • Diversity and access will be at the core of future arrangements, meaning the ‘traditional’ route of university, law school and training contract/pupillage is not fit for purpose (although let us not forget that statistically, at least, the profession doesn’t look too bad on this front, but it is the steady decline in proportions of women and ethnic minority students as you progress along the legal conveyor belt that's the problem).
  • CPD is very much in the firing line – nobody really thinks that the current system of accumulating points is any kind of guarantee of continuing competence.
  • As I reported last week, the expectation is that the outcome of the review will be radical. Legal education and training may never be the same again.

For what it’s worth, this is my personal view of the future of education and training: if I had to experience the mind-numbing tedium that was the old Law Society Finals and the hell that was the exam week, then every aspiring lawyer should. Open-book exams on the LPC indeed. Stuff the regulatory objectives and the public interest – I don’t see why everyone shouldn’t suffer like I did.


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