The legal community has mixed feelings about the ‘equivalent means’ route to qualification as a solicitor, with even those who like the idea fearing the consequences of greater competition for jobs and perhaps lower wages, according to a survey.
The online poll by Leeds Law Society received responses from around 250 people, ranging from partner-level solicitors to paralegals. It asked for views about alternative methods of qualifying versus the traditional training contract.
Under the Training Regulations 2014, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) can recognise that an individual has “through other assessed learning and work-based learning” acquired the necessary skills and knowledge to become a solicitor – known as the ‘equivalent means’ route.
The first solicitors to train under this route could be admitted this June.
The survey found 27% of respondents approved of paralegals qualifying in this way, while 34% did not and 38% said ‘possibly’ – results which the authors felt were “heavily influenced” by paralegals.
In an analysis attached to the results, they said: “This would indicate that there remains a large amount of paralegals in the legal community who are struggling to find training contracts or advancements in their careers.”
The analysis, quoting a representative comment, continued: “Others were concerned about the quality of paralegal’s exposure to work and the possibility that they may have mainly been involved in ‘volume work that requires little legal knowledge [or] critical thinking’.”
By far the most write-in comments on any of the survey’s ten questions (178) were devoted to voicing opinions on what should constitute suitable supervision/exposure to different areas of law. Many cited the experience provided by traditional training contracts as the benchmark.
Most respondents said that between two and four years’ experience as a paralegal should be sufficient to qualify by equivalent means. But almost three-quarters worried about paralegals having inadequate supervision and experience during this time.
Asked to reveal their concerns about equivalent means, more than six out of ten expressed fears for the brand of ‘solicitor’. Two-thirds were concerned about an over-supply of solicitors, while 43% said they were worried about the impact on wages. Other concerns were that paralegals who qualified by equivalent means would be exploited and their ambitions frustrated.
CILEx apprenticeships received a vote of confidence when more than 70% of respondents said there should be one recognised apprenticeship scheme tied to the legal executives’ body. More than 80% agreed that apprenticeships would, or ‘possibly’ would, increase diversity in the profession.
But, alarmingly, almost seven in ten disagreed that former CILEx apprentices would go on to have the same opportunities in their careers as those who took the traditional route to qualification. The words ‘stigma’ and ‘prejudice’ appeared in several write-in comments.
Catherine Woodward, a trainee solicitor at Bradford and Leeds firm, Gordons LLP, who co-authored the survey, said: “The general consensus [on equivalent means] seems to be that about half the people are worried about the impact on the brand of the solicitor and the other half are saying ‘it’s really good, but I think there are going to be problems in the future’. Yet nobody seems to be willing to say ‘we’ll be part of changing that’.
“[The results were] evenly split between people who are for and those who are against it – who I think might be the older generation of solicitor, or trainees who have… spent ages finding a training contract, who are thinking ‘why is there now a shortcut?’ when they’ve had to strive for so long.
“But overall, the way the profession is going I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, [and] looking at what the SRA actually require for the equivalent means qualification, it’s basically the same as being a training contract but without the name.
“I think people are concerned about the impact on the brand and on wages; if there are a lot more people qualifying, then supply and demand will kick in and people will get paid a lot less than they expected.”