Legal education and training: Unfit for purpose

Posted by Professor Chris Bones, chair of CILEX

Bones: The revolution starts now

Legal education and training is not fit for today, let alone the future and nearly eight years after the 2013 report that argued for greater accessibility and flexibility the responses across the three leading professional bodies could not have been more different.

In my view, as a non-lawyer, only one of them has produced something that meets the needs of employers, enhanced flexibility and cemented accessibility.

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) has come in for a considerable amount of criticism on accessibility and on cost. It has also failed to address a rising demand from employers for professionals with strong business and interpersonal skills and an underpinning in technology.

On the whole it has been judged a missed opportunity, in particular as regards accessibility. A report to the recent meeting of the Solicitors Regulation Authority said it expected fewer than 20 applications a year from those who have work experience or qualifications equivalent to a degree “and require us to confirm that this is an acceptable alternative to our requirement for a degree”.

CILEX on the other hand has a track record on flexibility and accessibility. With over 70% of our members being women and c.14% coming from BAME backgrounds we have long set the standard for leading the diversitifcation of the legal profession.

The CILEX response

With the launch of our CILEX Professional Qualification (CPQ), we have also recognised that the legal world is changing fast and that those who want to be lawyers need a different mix of skills to meet the demands of the modern legal market.

We have ensured that we will bring together what has to date been a two-stage process for qualification as an authorised person so that in future CILEX Lawyers will qualify with practice rights in their specialisation.

Legal knowledge, of course, remains the bedrock, but the need for students to have practical skills, modern behaviours and commercial awareness is greater than it has ever been. This is why, for example, the CPQ features mandatory elements covering legal technology, business skills and emotional intelligence: a first for legal training.

CPQ has taken three years of development and independent assessment, working with employers to make sure it delivers what they need. Each stage comprises three elements: core legal knowledge and skills; ethics and professional responsibility; and professional experience.

In addition for the first time CILEX is setting an industry standard for paralegals to help establish a consistent level of legal standing and status thus helping employers and their staff in setting training programmes and professional performance standards.

A significant opportunity for today’s paralegals

There are, we estimate, around 140,000 people working in the law who are classed as paralegals. Whilst some of these are CILEX members and benefit from our education, training and support, many others are not.

This group of legal professionals is a mix of those who could not access the traditional route into becoming a qualified lawyer post degree, those who have no ambition to qualify as a lawyer but support legal service delivery and want to work in the law, and those who have entered the law with the hope of qualifying through experience and study rather than through a degree.

CPQ offers each of these groups a real opportunity:

  • For law graduates unable to get a training contract or qualify via the SQE route, there is now a route to qualify as a lawyer with equal standing to a solicitor;
  • For non-graduates looking to qualify at work, the CPQ now offers a flexible three-stage route to qualification through formal paralegal qualifications and chartered status; and
  • For those who see paralegal as a career choice but are loking for a professional qualification and the standing that goes with it, there are two new qualifications: CILEX Paralegal and CILEX Advanced Paralegal

An accessible and flexible route to a professional career

It is no surprise to us that, after 50 years of CILEX leading the way, other parts of the profession are finally recognising the importance of opening up a route into law for those unable to attend university.

Indeed, the government’s recent skills white paper said it wanted to “put an end to the illusion that a degree is the only route to success and a good job”.

I believe that one of the reasons the public distrusts lawyers – and why many talented people choose a different career – is that the profession does not reflect the society it serves and appears a closed shop reserved for a certain type of person.

The focus on degrees means that solicitors and barristers are far more likely than the general population – and CILEX Lawyers – to have attended fee-paying schools and have parents with degree-level qualifications.

A report last November from the Legal Services Board observed that “the pace of progress needs to rapidly accelerate to ensure that the legal profession at all levels reflects the diversity of the communities it serves”. There was, it found, “deep-seated inertia” hindering change.

Regrettably, I don’t think much will change with the SQE. To qualify as a solicitor under the new regime, you still need a degree or qualification or experience that is equivalent to a degree – and as noted above, there will not be many in the last category. Solicitor apprentices still take degrees.

I believe it is in the country’s interest that we encourage students who may never have thought the law was for them to realise that there is an accessible and affordable route to qualification.

By doing so, we can transform the provision of legal services and improve access to justice, which remains an illusion for a distressingly high number of people and SMEs, according to Legal Services Board research.

CILEX Lawyers have made huge strides in recent times. They are now partners in law firms, appear in court as advocates, operate as legal counsel in the private and public sector, and sit as judges. The snobbery about lawyers without degrees is a prejudice whose day has long passed.

Our aim with CPQ has been to build on CILEX’s core propositions of accessibility, affordability and flexibility, backed at all times by the highest standards. The revolution starts now.

For more on CPQ, click here.



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