The ex-City lawyer chairman of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has questioned the recruitment methods of City law firms in making university students decide to become commercial lawyers so early on in their legal careers.
Charles Plant said “we have a system for recruitment to the legal profession that isn’t followed anywhere else in the world”.
Speaking at a forum on the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) – organised by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives – the former Herbert Smith Freehills partner said the profession had to ask itself serious questions about how early on some students have to decide their career path.
“Why do we have this extraordinary procedure where young people at the end of the second year of university have to decide whether to go to commercial law firms?” he demanded.
In the case of non-law graduates, he pointed out, they have to make this decision “before they even set foot in a law school”.
So long as this system exists, Mr Plant said, there needs to be a great deal of flexibility to allow lawyers to change career path. “Do they have the transferable skills to move from one branch to another?” he asked.
He also repeated his personal view that there should be common training of prospective solicitors and barristers.
More broadly, Mr Plant warned the audience of regulators, representative bodies, academics and other LETR stakeholders that the SRA will push its own plans to respond to the review – as outlined last week in a policy statement – to “the most ambitious timetable”. He said: “We think there’s a real, urgent need to get on now.”
Mr Plant and the chairs of the other two regulators that commissioned the LETR – Baroness Deech of the Bar Standards Board and Alan Kershaw of ILEX Professional Standards – all came out against the LETR recommendation to create a legal education council, favouring more informal collaboration instead. They were supported from the audience by Legal Services Board chief executive Chris Kenny.
The LETR said the council would provide a forum for the coordination of the continuing review of education and training, and serve as a data archive, careers advice shop, ‘legal education laboratory’ and clearing house, for example to advertise work experience.
However, the regulators expressed concern that it would simply divert resources and energy away from progressing with reform.
Professor Julian Webb – who led the LETR team – told the summit that he was worried that the prospective role of a council in “research and development, and ensuring we have the quality of information we need” would be lost as a result.
Mr Plant and Baroness Deech were also critical at the failure of university law schools to engage with the LETR. Mr Plant suggested that the more prestigious they were, the “more disinclined” they were as well to take part.
Baroness Deech said she had appealed to Oxford University – at which she taught for many years – to get involved in the LETR, “but they just won’t”. She continued: “It is time for our best universities to get stuck into this.”