The training reforms unveiled last week by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) are “not a panacea for diversity” though they could make a “significant contribution”, a report commissioned by the regulator has concluded.
The report also warned that the arrival of the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) in 2020 would make the training market “more complex to navigate” and put more responsibility for career development on trainees, and less on universities and employers.
“Wider range of choice is both an important opportunity to support diversity, since it will enable students to chart more flexible pathways, and a risk.
“It will make the routes to qualification harder to navigate, especially for those students without access to good advice, and a tiered system may become quickly apparent, because some legal employers will give continued (or possibly increased) currency to traditional pathways, through which high-performing candidates have been recruited for many years.”
The report on monitoring and maximising diversity under the SQE was commissioned by the SRA from the Bridge Group, a charity which specialises in research on social mobility.
The report said: “The SQE proposals will afford a wider range of options to intending solicitors. In principle, this is positive, since it will certainly engender greater flexibility, and likely greater affordability.”
The report said the SRA was “alert” to the need to avoid “information asymmetry” in the market and was committed to the development of a student toolkit to help deal with the problem.
In the short term at least, the report predicted that the qualification market would become “more complex to navigate”, with more “informal and privileged” sources of information available disproportionately to those from more advantaged backgrounds.
“The diversified routes to qualification offer greater freedoms, but are also likely to place greater responsibility for career development, and career progression, on the trainee, with potentially less onus on training providers and employers.
“Those from more advantaged backgrounds are likely to benefit disproportionately from this shift in balance, since they will typically have greater access to social and cultural capital, through well informed guidance and advice from peers and family members.”
Researchers said these risks should be balanced against the “significant constraints” of the current system and the potential for improved diversity if the different routes to qualification were fully understood.
The report stressed that achievement at school or at college was “critical to the prospects of aspiring solicitors”, since high achievement was the “ticket to selective universities” and used as “screening criteria” by two-thirds of law firms.
“There is a strong correlation between socio-economic background and school attainment, and this also applies to many minority ethnic groups.
“Wider experiences at school matter, too: there is evidence that school pupils from less advantaged backgrounds make subject choices that negatively affect their prospects, and that the quality of information, advice and guidance is weaker for these pupils.”
Law firms targeted the “most selective universities”, where students were more likely to have been to selective or fee-paying schools; students from poorer backgrounds, even when educated at Russell Group universities, could “self-select” out of the application process in “relatively high numbers”.
The report called on employers to learn from the data that would come out of the SQE, and consider relying on “less prestigious” training providers, if those providers had high SQE performance and high levels of diversity.
The Bridge Group said a series of interviews highlighted “risk aversion” among legal employers, expressed through “conservative concepts of talent” and “traditional selection practices”.
The report said risk aversion was caused partly by the high cost of recruitment and training of staff, with one interviewee quoting a figure of £250,000, in a market where “supply of talent far outweighs demand”.
A small number of interviewees expressed the “more worrying view” that some employers may be reluctant to encourage paralegals to become trainees because they are an “invaluable and cost-effective resource, which many employers are anxious about losing”.
The report recommended that the SRA should ensure its toolkit for students was robust and accessible and enabled students “from all backgrounds” to navigate the “increasingly complex range of qualification routes”.
It recommended that the regulator adopt a data strategy which would ensure that the greater transparency offered by the SQE was accessible to “all aspirant solicitors”.
The SRA should “consider carefully” the timing of its reforms and liaise frequently with law firms to ensure they had confidence in the “rigour and relevance” of the SQE.
“There is no silver bullet to address diversity in the legal profession, because lack of diversity is constructed of a complex range of factors at every stage on the journey to the profession.”