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Guest Post: Legal education review – why everyone is happy and no one is smiling

So the first round of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) is complete. Julian Webb et al’s report is out and the dust can begin to settle. The research phase faced a number of problems. There are four I would emphasise:

  • a wide, ill-defined brief, not susceptible to original research on the resources devoted to it;
  • a long-term neglect of all interested parties to research the links between education, training, regulation and competence; and,
  • a political situation which looks a bit like the Game of Thrones, without the erotica; and,
  • a regulatory framework that owes at least as much to history and politics as it does to the public interest.

In round terms, what this means is that the researchers had limited capacity to produce objective original evidence of the state of the legal education and training system and they had to work with a weak existing evidence base. This, in and of itself, militates against an evidence-based research project producing instant, paradigm-shifting plans for the future. That is as it should be: researchers research, and here the evidence (such as it is) tells them two things: we do not know anywhere near enough and the system is so complex that it requires a concerted process of engagement and leadership to move things forward. Top down imposition of Grand Plans, if you like, works as well in the legal education and training system as it does in the National Health Service.

Post publication, the main political constituencies immediately pull in the directions expected of them. The SRA creditably promises a radical look at several of the report’s recommendations. The BSB similarly praises food for thought but appears to offer the message that things are pretty good as they are (a theme similarly not out of step with the report). ILEX senses an opportunity to say that their approach to blended learning is the way of the future (again, the report supports this – and so do I). There is something here for everyone, it seems. Proponents of ethics and professionalism are given support (but perhaps not to the degree hoped for). Academics who fear further intrusion through foundation subjects, may not be much threatened – at least initially by – the suggestion that critical thinking, research and writing should be a discrete terminal assessment. Nigel Savage (pictured) is seen in curiously meek form, praising the review for its competence. What is more, having previously said the system was not fit for purpose, he now calls for an end to negative talk. My guess is he has figured out that he does not need regulatory reform to transform the sector.

The most concrete steers suggest the training contract and the LPC might benefit from being slimmed down, or rethought. Some prospect there for reducing the cost barriers of legal education, but not much. Flexibility may also help with diversity and access, but again, I suspect not much. While it is a positive for the debt-ridden students of the future, even those who voted Lib-Dem last time will not be inclined to believe there is much jam tomorrow. Practitioners too get a few positives: commercial awareness is, yikes, defined and supported (as is social awareness – and the researchers gently nudge us towards seeing in reality these are two sides of the same coin); CPD can be rendered more useful, though I doubt the researchers think they can persuade the refuseniks at the Bar of that.

So while on the surface everyone (kind of) is saying they are (sort of) happy, no one is smiling. And no one is smiling because the research tells them, there is not enough research; the research – and a moment’s thought – tells them there is no easy solution; there are many hard yards; and it is everyone’s problem, not yours, not mine, not theirs. It’s ours. The research stands as an astute reminder that this is the reality: implementation is everything. This will require resources (knowledge, skills, bodies, money) and it will need mechanisms for change. For that reason (I surmise) they propose that the different constituencies coalesce around things like working out outcomes: what does a lawyer need to be able to do at day one. And they propose a Legal Education Council to advise regulators and act as focal point for sharing best practice. This kind of negotiated solution will require a great deal of energy and goodwill. I wonder if anyone is really up for it. A more likely scenario is the regulators who want change will liberalise, permit change and (if they do not skimp) properly assess it. That would require both a fleetness of foot and a robustness about testing the links between competence, education and training which we have yet to see attempted in the legal sector. This may explain why the Legal Services Consumer Panel chair, Elisabeth Davies, appears so cross about the lukewarm response to the Panel’s proposal re-accreditation for practitioners. She has spotted the flaw: improved training is supposed to deliver improved competence, but no one can show her that it does and there is a big question as to whether anyone is likely to.

Richard Moorhead is professor of law and professional ethics at UCL Faculty of Laws and director of the Centre for Ethics and Law. He blogs at Lawyer Watch. Follow Richard on Twitter.

Click here for more coverage of the LETR’s recommendations.