Wisdom of regulator’s commitment to inclusivity questioned
The might of the City of London’s finest law firms are lining up for battle with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) over a proposal that could massively dilute the prestige of the solicitor brand.
To the alarm of top global megafirms who rake in millions in the capital partly thanks to the esteem in which the English legal profession is held, the SRA is considering a new route to qualification that would allow people to qualify as solicitors without completing a qualifying law degree or the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Under the radical plan, the training contract requirement would also be waived for these non-graduates.
So, with the right on-the-job training basically anyone could call themselves a solicitor.
On one hand, this seems progressive — after all, who uses much of what they learnt at university and law school (which of course cost a lot more than they used to)?
But on the other, scrapping all the traditional hoops that wannabe lawyers have to jump through would leave the English legal profession looking rather flimsy in comparison to its counterparts in other countries.
In the US, lawyers must complete a four year liberal arts degree followed by a three year stint at law school. OK, so American law graduates don’t do training contracts and can practice straight out of law school, but their seven years of academic study more than makes up for this.
In Australia, another country without a strict traineeship requirement, time spent at law school is also much greater than on these shores, while in Germany aspiring solicitors have to do a whopping nine years of study.
As such, City of London lawyers feel justified in arguing for the preservation of the training contract. In a response to the SRA, issued via the Law Society, one Square Mile chief summed up the mood, writing:
In the international sphere, UK lawyers are already considered less academically trained than other lawyers. If the SRA’s proposals go ahead, you are totally undermining the position of English law as a qualification. If you take away the training contract, what are you left with?
Legal Cheek caught up with one of these lawyers, Skadden’s Allan Murray-Jones, who stressed that he and his City law pals weren’t against initiatives like Trailblazer apprenticeships and earn-while-you-learn degrees that cut costs for students. Rather, Murray-Jones says that they just want to ensure that solicitor training continues to be of a sufficient length to main credibility. He explained:
Mayer Brown and ULaw’s combined degree and work programme is an excellent development. With it taking place over the course of six years there is clearly no need for a defined training contract to take place within that. Government-backed Trailblazer apprenticeships will also offer great opportunities for firms outside London to reduce training costs. What we take issue with is shortening the necessary period of training to an extent that is too great.
The SRA has not yet given its backing to the proposal to relax training requirements — although it has already allowed a handful of solicitors to qualify via its new “equivalent means” route (dubbed the “paralegal shortcut”). A final decision will be made after a formal consultation expected in December. But it is a measure of how concerned City lawyers are about the regulator’s mood that they have gone on the offensive at this relatively early stage.
In response to the move, SRA education and training boss Julie Brannan commented:
We have not yet made any decisions about the future training of solicitors and all contributions to the debate are helpful. We are pleased that firms welcome the clarification around standards for solicitors and have expressed their cautious support for a centralised assessment.