Guest post by Crispin Passmore of Passmore Consulting and former director of policy at the Solicitors Regulation Authority
Perhaps the inevitable consequence of seeking support for radical and sometimes unpopular change such as the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has consistently said to law firms that, if they don’t want to change, they don’t have to.
That, of course, is true, but it rather misses the point.
Instead of trying to identify future partners half way through candidates’ degrees, SQE will give firms the opportunity to develop a much broader talent pipeline that serves all of their business needs rather than just a funnel towards partnership.
It allows firms to build a more flexible workforce alongside a sharper focus on training solicitors who have not only the intellectual ability, but also the values and behavioural alignment with the firm. More opportunities for candidates from a wider talent pool to demonstrate their potential as high fliers goes hand in hand with investing in those individuals.
It isn’t just about flexibility at the point of identifying trainees. SQE provides the core – the minimum needed for a solicitor to be a safe beginner. Students and firms need to then take responsibility for what they add: be it sector-specific law or knowledge, or additional skills such as advocacy, handling vulnerable clients, or understanding technology.
Firms need to be clear what they want and educators need to prepare students accordingly. That is a real opportunity for law firms to train the lawyers they need rather than the notional average lawyer for the City or the high street.
So, what might we see emerge? It will be be influenced by other regulatory reforms that are enabling innovation in 2019.
Allowing solicitors to work in unregulated law firms is a significant change which will create increased opportunities for solicitors to be employed in the wider legal market and for them to be trained appropriately.
Instead of a training contract being dangled like a carrot to paralegals, they will be in control, gaining experience, seeking education and training where they identify a gap and sitting the SQE when they are ready. Law firms will no longer hold the key to qualification.
This should drive a more diverse education and training market with more online provision, ‘earn and learn’ opportunities, and education targeted to specific sectors.
This will affect all parts of the legal market. New entrants might offer better opportunities and routes to qualification – accountancy firms, outsourcing and managed solutions, unregulated high street providers and multi-disciplinary practices focused on local needs will be able to offer tailored routes to qualification.
If legal aid firms or law centres want to collaborate with an education provider to develop a specific route to qualification, then SQE allows and facilitates this.
Students will choose what excites them as well as considering a firm’s reputation or pay. Firms that don’t help their trainees develop the skills that prepare them for the future may find lots of good candidates going elsewhere.
The key is that SQE provides an opportunity for employers and educators to unleash their imaginations: it is up to them if they take that opportunity.
One such advantage of SQE is that it encourages firms to get their trainees in front of clients. The traditional routes might not facilitate that and so firms will quickly realise that, just as modern practice is different from 30 years ago, then so must modern education be different.
There are other labour market factors for law firms to consider. The number of graduates is forecast to rise significantly, with the recent dip reversing in 2019 and 300,000 additional graduate places forecast by 2030. Some of these will be degree-level apprenticeships, which are bucking the trend of falling numbers of apprenticeships at lower levels of education.
High employment rates (up from around 70% ten years ago to almost 80% now) further changes the make-up of the talent pool.
If law firms want to take advantage of this – which makes sense in an increasingly competitive labour market – they need to think differently about their whole workforce strategy.
SQE provides opportunities to support that rather than the constraints the current system designs in to lawyer qualification. Fishing in a wider talent pool can help with diversity, innovation and employee engagement.
Senior and managing partners, CEOs and HR directors need to start asking themselves a different question. Instead of the profession-centric ‘how should we recruit and train our lawyers?’, there needs to be a more strategic set of questions.
What services are we going to be delivering in five years time and what sort of law firm model does that require? What sort of workforce do we need to deliver our services in the future? How do we make our workforce flexible enough to change as the demands of the market change what we do and how we do it? How can we compete for talent in a crowded and competitive labour market? What do we need to offer students to make our firm stand out?
None of these are questions that can wait. Some firms seem to think that they can wait until 2021 – after all, that is when the SRA has said that SQE comes in. But that is the first exams rather than the start of a new system.
Those sitting exams in 2021 need to be thinking about it now. They need to be getting the right experience in front of clients ready to sit the skills examinations in SQE2. They need to be building their experience in applying law to facts ready for SQE1.
And some changes happen much faster; from this summer trainees will not need to do three seats – that is one more example of genuine flexibility.
This is the year for firms to align their workforce strategy with their business strategy. There are so many opportunities for the new entrants and disrupters to seize. The only question for each firm is if they want to lead or follow.