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Comment: Big picture, big mess – familiar turf wars as the legal education debate drags on

Legal education reform. First principles. Root and branch. It was ever thus. Attending the Westminster Legal Policy Forum (WLPF) seminar this week, the legal education community was much exercised about the latest attempts to reform the framework for training lawyers.

The primary focus of the ire was the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s controversial plans for a standardised test for all solicitors (dubbed the Solicitors Qualifying Examination).

Audience members lamented that part one of the exam is only equivalent to ‘at least graduate level’ and given that students with qualifying law degrees will not be exempt from any part of the SQE, law graduates could be asked to cover old ground in the new exam.

The logic is that with the proliferation of vocational providers and routes to qualification, standards vary too much. The SRA argues that the exam – to be held after vocational training – would also support students from less prestigious universities as they would have passed the same test as Russell Group rivals.

Martin Coleman, outgoing chair of the SRA’s education and training committee, said that the SQE is ‘catching up with best practice in other professions’ by providing greater ‘consistency of outcome’.

The universities are predictably the most opposed but few seem that happy. There is also the point that major law firms like the LPC + training contract model and would resist major tampering and that the SRA already has powers to monitor the quality of LPC providers.

And whatever the merits for reform there are major logistical challenges to the proposal. For the SQE to be a genuine leveller for bright kids, it would need to be demonstrably rigorous and hard enough to cause significant numbers of applicants to fail. That is collateral damage the SRA is unlikely to stomach.

While the logic of standardising qualification is strong, it would be less challenging to achieve this by going with the grain of the current framework. The BSB’s Future Bar Training programme continues to consult on the recommendations of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), and in 2012 the regulator introduced centralised BPTC assessments. The move wasn’t exactly popular with training providers, but is probably a step in the right direction towards a consistent training regime.

In contrast, the SRA’s intervention raises the basic question of why it is coming up with major proposals several years after the profession supposedly united for a sweeping review of the vocational market in the LETR, which was launched in 2011 and produced a final report in 2013.

Despite consuming considerable resource and time of the great and good, the LETR was quickly mired in conflicting agendas inherent in the post-Legal Services Act era. The LETR was launched at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way and with an agenda so confused that even educational veterans couldn’t work out its supposed point. The result was wholly predictable.

And the current debate speaks once more to the dysfunctional dynamic that has long dominated vocational reform. Different constituencies with conflicting interests jostle for position and frustrate attempts at substantive reform.

In addition, regulators have rarely resisted the urge to meddle, though their ability to shape and impact the wider ‘market’ composed of universities, law firms and training providers is limited at best.

Attempts at sweeping reform have then been bogged down in complexity and unintended consequences, rather than the better prospects for targeted measures for specific problems.

The more pressing issue that requires targeted attention is education pathways and social mobility. Clearly defined pathways are essential for entering the profession. It’s confusing enough being a 19-year-old faced with a great breadth of choices, without having to set your ambitions on a legal career only to discover that you have no idea how people go from student to qualified lawyer.

The most promising reform to the established routes is the Trailblazers Apprenticeship. An employer-led scheme supported by the Department for Business, Education and Skills and the Department for Education, it will create new apprenticeships and enable non-graduates to become solicitors, chartered legal executives and paralegals. The first Trailblazer apprentices will begin in September 2016 so it is too early to evaluate the scheme, but the early signs of industry support are encouraging.

Efforts to boost diversity have also been stepped up in recent years. Many firms have set up their own individual programmes for boosting the diversity of recruitment, and honourable mentions go to efforts such as PRIME. So far this has barely scratched the surface of an overwhelmingly privileged profession but some momentum is building.

The problems underlying this lack of social inclusion are national in scope. The financial pressures on young people are enormous. Undergraduate degrees are now £9,000-a-year commitments, after which aspiring lawyers are asked to fork out further fortunes on law school fees. The BPP/University of Law duopoly hardly helps to create a competitive market. Regulators and industry bodies have also long shied away from tackling the worst excesses of the Bar educational market, or even accepted the basic reality that the modern Bar is singularly ill-equipped to tackle social mobility, however inconvenient that may be for the Bar’s image.

Why is the conversation around legal education reforms so arduous? A unanimous show of hands at the WLPF seminar rejected the status quo. But then veterans of this debate know how familiar and unproductive has been the cry: ‘Something must be done!’

How to move forward? For one, industry bodies should be realistic about what can be practically achieved in a profession operating in regulatory and market flux. Diminishing the flow of consultations and an increased focused on a smaller number of priorities would also help create pragmatic, evolutionary adaptive change.

That would be a well-timed shift because it’s only going to get a lot worse. The Government has this year made it clear that it is going to again pick at the barely-settled LSA regulatory settlement, leading inevitably to more turf wars, shoulder-shoving and unintended consequences that will have major implications for the education market. Pity the kids thinking about a career in law amid that mess.

Daniel Coyne is the editor of Lex 100, Legal Business’s sister publication