In the course of a full morning, academics, solicitors, paralegals, trainers, regulators and others contributed to the debate over the issues raised by the recent Legal Education and Training Report (LETR). Although the process had been sparked off by the comment of the Chairman of the Legal Services Board that legal education was “not fit for purpose”, the conclusion was that it was indeed fit, though it needed to build on strengths and address weaknesses. Missing from the seminar was any practising barrister, or anyone from Oxford or Cambridge, despite educating a third of the Bar.
“Flexibility” and “outcomes based” were two of the favourite expressions. Flexibility included the way in which people qualify (apprenticeships were mentioned several times), the way in which they work and who does the work. David Holland, Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Paralegals, stated that paralegals now count for half of fee earners. They undertake legal work sufficiently often to count as a practitioner but they are not part of the regulatory system. Solicitor Joy Van Cooten, who thought that the review had not been bold enough, flagged up the question of retaining women in the profession and that paralegals are cheaper to hire.
Christina Blacklaws, Director of Policy, The Co-Operative Legal Services, praised flexibility and said “let’s be positive”. As far as providers are concerned, “their only commodity is their people”. High Street firms are struggling to survive and alternative business structures have “a lot to offer” in being productive and innovative. They now make up 5% of the legal services market. The Co-Op, which employs 600 people, has successfully conducted tendering exercises with chambers that now form a panel working on a fixed fee basis. Its Learning Academy seeks to “crack the social mobility nut” and mentors would-be lawyers from a young age.
When winding up the session that she had chaired, Baroness Deech made a plea for keeping up standards and quality as well as relevance. She doubted the advantage of qualifying in a very narrow way: “how can you just qualify to do Will writing” without also knowing about trusts and tax? It was Antony Townsend, Chief Executive, Solicitors Regulation Authority, though who sounded most radical. He wanted to scrap one size fits all for qualifying as a lawyer. Higher education and employers had to come up with effective routes to meet outcomes by specifying the skills and knowledge required. He called for a “bonfire of education and training regulations” that abolished overlaps and removed prescriptive elements. He wanted the Bar and solicitors to be collaborative rather than to diverge in education and training matters.
Simon Thornton-Wood, Head of Education and Training for the Bar Standards Board, set out the six principles which the BSB had announced on 8 October, including a fresh focus on CPD. Everyone was on board with the latter: Townsend called for the scrapping of the current structure of CPD. He said that it ought to ensure that everyone who works in a firm is competent. The hours-based system does not do this. This also echoed the opening remarks of Professor Julian Webb, who led the research team for the report, and who said that CPD should be “necessary, relevant and just-in-time learning”. During the final questions and answers, someone asked that students should not effectively have to choose between the Bar and being a solicitor in their second year of university. That was as close as the seminar got to fusing education.