Legal executives are increasingly less likely to want to train as solicitors, and switching to a trainee contract after having been a paralegal can involve a decrease in contact with clients, a major survey has found.
The research, carried out for the Solicitors Regulation Authority by Nottingham Law School researchers as part of the authority’s Training for Tomorrow project, found that workplace experience helps to develop the competences needed to be a solicitor.
The report, Pre-qualification work experience in professional legal education, written by solicitor-academics Professor Jane Ching and Pamela Henderson, surveyed 804 law students, graduates, paralegals, trainee solicitors and chartered legal executives online, followed up with 23 qualitative interviews.
They concluded that learning in the workplace is “valuable and important”, and exposes students to the “messiness” of real people’s legal problems, as well as helping them understand how law firms work.
Areas where a lack of opportunity was found to be widespread in work experience, including in some two-year training contracts, were client contact, advocacy, and negotiation. Further, there were problems with “the ability to… learn about application of ethics… personal autonomy, responsibility and time and workload management in some kinds of work experience. Not all work experience involves team work”.
The research supports the SRA’s second consultation on the solicitors qualifying examination, published yesterday, which calls for candidates to undertake workplace training, whether as a paralegal, in a student law clinic, or in a formal training contract.
Reasons why “qualifying as a solicitor appears to be of decreasing interest for legal executives”, the researchers said, included that it was too late in their career to change, and that becoming a solicitor would involve a pay cut.
Comments supporting this view included a legal executive who said: “I do not believe there is any financial benefit to me, as my CILEx qualification and experience is as valuable to my clients and recognised by my employers just as if I were a solicitor.”
Another said the benefit of training as a solicitor was mainly in the different attitudes of their employer to trainees: “I have been a Fellow for nearly a decade. However, only when I decided to do the extra to become a solicitor did my firm take me more seriously and give me more challenging work and actually train me.”
The research found that the type of work experienced varied according to the training undertaken: “Clinics, law centres, legal executive work and not-for-profit organisations tend to focus on work for individuals, often those in great need. Vacation schemes and training contracts tend to focus on commercial work, frequently with larger law firms.”
At its best, benefits experienced could be wide-ranging: “From observing colleagues and routine administration to considerable responsibility for clients and files, carrying out advocacy and undertaking negotiation [enabling skills] such as team-working.
“They can apply what they have learned in the classroom to a more complex context and deal with real world issues such as a client’s emotional connection to their problem. It allows potential solicitors to understand how professional ethics, duties to clients, professionalism and responsibility operate and are challenged in practice.”
But the researchers acknowledged that other experiences were more limited: “Some junior paralegal work is largely administrative… Paralegal work prior to a training contract is quite normal, though not universal, and can sometimes continue for many years.”
They also concluded: “Where the experience is very short, very constrained or very junior, opportunities to acquire or develop competence in even these may be depressed. Vacation schemes in particular appear to be too short and too constrained to allow for very much more than informed career choice and to be part of a firm’s recruitment processes.”
For some, they observed, becoming a trainee after being a paralegal can “involve a decrease in client contact, personal autonomy and responsibility as their role shifts from managing a caseload of their own to supporting a senior fee earner with their case load.”
Other would-be solicitors had to suffer long gaps between completing the legal practice course and starting a training contract. One trainee interviewed said: “It took me seven years from ending the LPC to starting my training contract. I never thought I would end up getting one.
“There are far too many law school places and far too few training contracts. If I had known the difficulty and the odds of obtaining a training contract, I would never have gone to law school.”
The report suggested widespread ignorance among the people surveyed of the SRA’s ‘equivalent means’ process, by which it is possible to qualify as a solicitor without doing a training contract. There was “no evidence [it was] widely known”, they said, “as some of the paralegal respondents might have been in a position to take advantage of it”.