A legal training fault-line?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) introduced the SRA Training Regulations 2014 – Qualification and Provider Regulations in July to replace the training contract with a requirement that, to qualify as a solicitor, an individual must complete a ‘period of recognised training’ with a firm, partnership or other body authorised by the SRA. The SRA wants organisations that train solicitors to move away from training contracts to a skills-based training programme.
To gain experience to meet the criteria contained in the SRA’s nine practice skills standards, trainees will have to undertake both contentious and non-contentious work, including advocacy and oral presentation, and case and transaction management. The Law Society believes that the downside of a skills-based approach is that trainee solicitors could qualify by confining their experience to a narrow area of work and lose out on the breadth of experience they would have gained under a training contract.
Traditionally, under a training contract, trainees undertake ‘seats’ in three or four areas of law. The system of seats is expensive for firms as, usually, after six months in one department, a trainee moves to his/her next seat, ie, just at the point where s/he would be likely to become productive and generate income for the firm.
LAG believes that when it works properly, the system of seats gives trainee solicitors comprehensive knowledge and experience, beyond the field in which they choose to specialise eventually, on which they can draw in their professional life. The system is also more likely to give trainees the ability to switch between different areas of law during their career.
However, it is likely that the new regulations may make it easier for paralegal staff working in firms to qualify as solicitors. Many firms rely on paralegals to undertake casework supervised by a solicitor. While these staff are often highly skilled and experienced, paralegals are usually paid less than trainee solicitors working in the same practice because they lack a professional qualification. The SRA’s new regulations may also make it easier for paralegals’ experience to count towards training for a qualification; although it was common for paralegals to offset their work experience against their training contract and obtain a six-month reduction in its duration. The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) points out that the majority of its 20,000 members are already working as paralegals while undertaking the training to become legal executives. LAG hopes that the new SRA regulations will lead to more flexibility in the process of qualifying as a solicitor akin to that which exists in relation to the CILEx qualification.
LAG spoke to the Institute of Paralegals (IOP) about the new SRA regulations, and it gave a completely different perspective on the issue. While the IOP believes that some paralegals working in firms may be more likely to be able to qualify as solicitors, it says that this is neither the aspiration of the vast majority of IOP members nor in the interests of most of the firms that employ them.
Setting standards: the future of legal services education and training regulation in England and Wales, the June 2013 Legal Education and Training Review report where the proposals for the practice skills standards were first trailed, estimated that 215,000 jobs would be needed in the legal sector by 2020. CILEx believes that many of the new jobs created in the sector will be for paralegals, and they should be given opportunities to obtain a professional qualification. IOP believes that the predicted growth in the legal services market will come from non-regulated firms such as will writers and paid McKenzie friends.
There is no doubt that new ways of providing legal services should be encouraged. We acknowledge that some of these services, while not owned and supervised by solicitors, can play an important role in serving the public. After all, the largest paralegal service, Citizens Advice Bureaux (CABx), has been doing so for 75 years. However, like CABx, such services should work to ethical standards and have in place safeguards such as professional indemnity insurance.
More flexibility in the provision of training to the lawyers of the future is important to ensure diversity. It is also important to give paralegal staff the opportunity to qualify as solicitors if they should wish to do so. However, LAG’s main concern about the anticipated expansion in the legal services job market is that it will not, for the most part, create employment opportunities for advisers – qualified or otherwise – in the areas of law of benefit to communities that are poor or disadvantaged; however, that discussion will have to be the subject of a future editorial.