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The Judge Rules: Training contracts and pupillages should be scrapped

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If yet another review of legal education must be launched — let’s hope regulators have the guts to propose something radical and meaningful

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David Hobart is not a typical media tart. The chief executive of the City of London Law Society is a former assistant chief of the defence staff in the Royal Air Force and ex-Bar Council chief executive.

None of those roles suggests a propensity for headline grabbing. Yet earlier this week, Hobart let loose with both barrels, telling the legal profession’s uber-regulator that the prospect of another round of navel gazing over the education and training of lawyers filled his Square Mile membership with a sense of utter horror.

“Please let this exhausted dog sleep for a few years,” was Hobart’s final plea to the Legal Services Board (LSB).

But the problem is that regulators of all shapes and sizes justify their existence by not just keeping dogs awake, but by prodding them repeatedly into running round the garden chasing their own tails.

In June 2013, the long anticipated and highly touted Legal Education and Training Review was published. It had been commissioned by the three leading frontline legal profession regulators — the Solicitor Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and Legal Executives’ Professional Standards — and was ultimately greeted by the sound of one hand clapping.

At the time, The Lawyer magazine suggested:

“… if the authors of the 370-page report, which has been more than two and a half years in the gestating … were submitting it as a degree dissertation, their supervisors might … apply several … criticisms: long-winded, cluttered with verbosity and jargon, lacking focus and, in the words students would recognise, failing to cut to the chase.”

Now the regulator-in-chief wants to prod the dog again. Hobart’s “Apocalypse Now”-style comments came in response to strong hints from the LSB that it will launch yet another education and training review either this year or next.

Enough is enough, says the City man — and The Judge agrees.

The last thing the legal profession needs is another gaggle of academics — most of which haven’t practised law for years, if they have at all — racking up large consultancy fees to produce reams of jargon-filled pontificating that only the most profound insomniacs will plough through.

In fact, The Judge would go further. If there must be another review of the future of legal education and training, it should grasp the nettle and recommend dramatic reform. The bullet points should be few and simple, of the less-is-more variety, such as these:

Bin training contracts — or “periods of recognised training”, as they have ludicrously been rebranded.

The academic route to qualification to the solicitor branch of the profession should involve a law degree, a one-year short, sharp shock of practical training (retain the Legal Practice Course (LPC) label if that makes everyone feel comfortable) and bish-bosh, that’s it. A modified route should still exist for non-law graduates, involving a one-year conversion course.

Bin pupillages. The route to qualification at the bar should look a lot like the solicitors’ path: law degree plus a year’s practical advocacy training (add conversion course where necessary).

The last and most important stage for both routes — as well as those coming via non-academic legal executive or paralegal/apprenticeship paths — would be to pass a professional entrance exam.

Once qualified, these wannabe solicitors and barristers can go straight on the job market. The irritating mini-industry that has cropped up around law firm summer vacation schemes might continue, but it will be less important as it won’t be seen as such an crucial gateway to a training contact.

Law firms will be able to mould their young lawyers they way the want to from day one; and the indentured servitude that is exploitative pupillage at many chambers will vanish in a puff of acrid smoke. Plus the new streamlined system would save firms and chambers dosh.

Traditionalists will wail, but they will get over it. There are plenty of jurisdictions around the world — indeed, most — where lawyers qualify as soon as they have successfully completed academic study and leapt over a final bar exam hurdle.

And if those conducting the review really had any yarbles, they would go a step further: merge the initial academic study for all lawyers, with the route being: degree (conversion course if necessary), plus a merged LPC that included some advocacy training.

After initial qualification, those aiming to appear before the higher courts would be required to do a period of further intensive advocacy training of six months to a year.

And that’s it. No gut-wrenching summer vac, training contract, mini-pupillage and pupilliage applications and interviews — just a straightforward job hunt, like what everyone else experiences.

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