Offering would-be solicitors – and particularly paralegals – a route to qualification that does not require a training contract may not be the way to reduce barriers to access to the profession, new research has suggested.
More positively, the first results of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) work-based learning (WBL) pilot showed “a level of success” in delivering a robust framework to enable qualification this way.
The twin aims of the pilot are to develop a method of assessing students at the vocational stage that is quality assured, consistent and reliable, allowing them to demonstrate competence; and to test a route to qualification that does not depend on the candidate having a training contract and as a vehicle for reducing barriers to access to the solicitors’ profession.
Seventy-nine students took part in the pilot, of whom 70 passed following completion of the course in December 2010.
They were either nominated by law firms which had already agreed to take them on for training as solicitors, or candidates who volunteered and were already employed in law firms or in-house in legal roles which would not otherwise have led to qualification.
In both cases they were assessed either internally by their employer or by an external provider against a set of eight learning outcomes involving practical legal experience.
The evaluation report – by the Institute of Work Based Learning at Middlesex University – found widespread praise for the outcomes, but concerns over the limitations of portfolios as the tool by which the trainees provided evidence of their competency against the outcomes.
There are two continuing strands to the pilot, with candidates to be assessed next year. One involves qualification as a solicitor through doing paralegal work that is commensurate with the work undertaken during a training contract.
The other is qualification with a single provider delivering the law degree, legal practice course and assessment of WBL through student pro bono work and a placement with an employer.
Some paralegals have already been assessed and overall, while the route was seen as fair, the researchers received a very mixed picture over whether it would improve access to the profession except for those already in paralegal roles who had already completed the academic stage of qualification.
Employers were also concerned over the impact on businesses of paralegals wanting to train to become solicitors, and also whether the scheme would create a two-tier system.
The report said: “Professionals were not convinced that by itself the WBL scheme could address barriers to entry, but rather barriers to entry needed to be addressed earlier in the education and training process.”
One of the researchers’ recommendations is that the SRA should “address barriers to entry at secondary school level when choices of university, course and future careers are still in the formative stage”. They also noted that the pilot only addressed the barrier of socio/educational background.
Dr Susan Bews, chairwoman of the SRA’s education and training committee, said: “The WBL pilot… will improve the rigour of our assessment processes, and has the potential to offer a wider range of trainees the opportunity to complete their training through alternative routes.
“We now have a firm basis on which to develop our work further and this will be fed into the overall education and training review which we, the Bar Standards Board, and ILEX Professional Standards are undertaking.”