Growing student debt means the length of time would-be lawyers spend studying needs to shrink, the chairman of the Legal Services Board has declared.
David Edmonds also floated the idea of adopting the accountants’ training model, in which professional training takes place during full-time employment, while appearing to throw cold water on the idea of aptitude testing for students before they begin postgraduate legal education.
Delivering the annual Lord Upjohn lecture in London last Friday – his first foray into education and training policy, some two and a half years after being appointed – Mr Edmonds said he constantly heard from both educationalists and practitioners that the current framework is “simply not fit for purpose”.
He welcomed greater flexibility in postgraduate legal education, as well as delivery methods “that more closely align teaching to the demands of legal practice”, highlighting the need for “a constant interplay between practice and education”. He continued: “As student finance becomes ever more difficult, I really hope that we see this type of initiative being taken even further. For those leaving school and aiming for a legal career, we need to see the total length of time spent in education – and so the total amount of debt – shrink. This is linked to ensuring that students do not need to make crucial, and costly, investment decisions too early on, before getting a real ‘feel’ for the area of practice and all that it will involve.”
On the accountancy approach to training, he explained: “It must be worth considering whether such a model could be developed for law, to address the issue of students completing the vocational stage – and accumulating significant debts in the process – without the offer of a training contract or pupillage on completion. Indeed, do we need to assume that the training contract and pupillage need to be inviolable parts of everybody’s career progression or should they be one route among others?”
The speech surprisingly contained no recognition that the legal executive route to qualification already allows students to complete their qualification while working.
Mr Edmonds said he understood why people argue for aptitude testing, but asked: “Shouldn’t any qualifying degree worth its name give people the necessary aptitude?”
He added: “I understand the worries of those who feel that we are in danger of training people who have little or no chance of making a successful professional career in the current environment. The danger is that initiatives to protect the over-optimistic educational consumer may inadvertently have the effect of reinforcing stereotypes about the exclusivity of the profession. We should make sure that managing unrealistic expectation doesn’t lead to legitimate aspiration being dampened.”
Also in the speech Mr Edmonds argued against students being forced into decisions about specialisation as early on in their careers as they are now, and called for “a changed and earlier emphasis on the teaching of professional ethics and wider responsibilities to the client”. But he warned that while legal ethics has a lot to teach general business ethics, “exclusion and misplaced moral superiority aren’t among the relevant lessons”.
As expected, Mr Edmonds strongly backed the joint review of education and training being conducted by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards, but made it clear that he expects to see “concrete recommendations that can be agreed and implemented by all relevant parties. If this produces papers for learned journals alone, it will have failed”.
The Legal Services Board is billing the review – which originally it intended to conduct itself – as “the most penetrating enquiry into the training needs of lawyers since the Ormrod review in 1971”. The Ormrod review split legal training into academic, vocational and continuing stages, and also brought about the end of the old five-year articles for those who had not gone to university.