Legal sector’s ‘perfect storm’ moment could blow in new way of training lawyers

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By Nigel Savage on

NewLaw needs new thinking on legal education, argues Nigel Savage

All participants in the legal services sector are facing the perfect storm: a rare combination of events which combine to create massive turbulence.

There aren’t many sectors that are not being subjected to the same pressures. The natural human response to such factors is to huddle together in a collective and safe comfort blanket of familiarity to retain the old certainties. Such action does not however address the fundamental causes of the unusual turbulence.

The legal services sector can take some comfort from the fact that it is not alone in facing its own perfect storm, even though some factors are derived from the historic cultural and pervasive inertia of the legal profession. The warning signs of legal service climate change date back to the Thatcher deregulation years, the visionary picture that Richard Susskind portrayed in his first book in 1996 and arrival of a quasi-independent regulator.

Providers of both legal education and legal services are having to confront broadly similar issues including: a regulatory and commercial environment focused on the customer and competitive pressures; the pervasive impact of technology; globalisation and responding to behavioural changes in the emerging generation of millennials who are digital natives and prefer learning in a workplace environment rather than passive learning in a lecture theatre or isolated cellular offices.

Unlike new entrants to the respective sectors, traditional market players do not have the luxury of starting from scratch, in effect they are attempting to change a wheel on a moving vehicle. This inevitably creates tensions. Lawyers (both academic and practising) are not good at change management and when confronted with it they tend to look backwards for solutions (it may be something to do with the doctrine of precedent) rather than forward to confront new and unfamiliar challenges.

Hear more original thinking about the future of legal education and training at  LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January 2020

On the one hand tech and innovation hubs are appearing on campuses and in traditional firms up and down the country but on the other hand new lecture theatres are being built and new offices occupied under traditional resourcing models. Recent research suggests that law schools are unnecessarily homogenous and to a certain extent the same could be said of some of the legal service providers. Too many legal service providers are clinging on to methodologies of the past.

Outdated processes enshrined in the training contract still dominate recruitment strategies even though the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have confined it to history under the new rule book and recruiters have been rebadged new talent managers. The issues confronting both legal education and legal service delivery are multi-disciplinary and require strategic solutions to address underlying factors at the heart of the perfect storm.

The UK is now a creative hub for the delivery of a whole range of legal services thanks to the impact of technology and successive regulatory reforms. New business models and divisions of labour have been created, new skills are emerging or have been created and professional work has been reconfigured.

The routes to qualification and the educational framework have however been locked in a time warp which has impeded diversity and is still preparing a new generation of young professionals for the old model, rather than capturing the creativity of a generation who want to learn and develop in the workplace, integrated into a structured performance management programme.

The reaction to the new SQE framework is symptomatic of the above analysis. Many implementers in the sector are still of a generation that are sceptical of change and therefore seek to retro-fit the changes into the old model. Like many lawyers, they can’t see the wood from the trees and fail to appreciate that the SRA have provided a flexible framework to reshape the education and training of an entire new generation of legal service players.

With the introduction of the SQE, the considerable flexibility created under the recent rule book changes and all the other trends impacting on the sector at the same time (identified above), the SRA have created a flexible framework within which all stakeholders can creatively confront the perfect storm.

Hear more original thinking about the future of legal education and training at  LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January 2020

In effect my reading of what the SRA are saying to the sector is that we have removed the impediments to change, all we require is a final test of competence in the public interest, the two-year work placement can now reflect changing work patterns against the backcloth of legal service climate change, get on with it, be creative and fill the canvas consistent with your own strategic priorities.

The law firms are not addressing the fundamental question of how to develop the next generation of high value, strategic and profit driven leaders based on outputs and not inputs. The dated notion of a training contract may not be the right vehicle for some firms. The answer may well lie in what they are doing in Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham. The irony is that many firms of all the ingredients to make the cake, they just have not yet figured out the recipe.

The sector may derive comfort from clinging onto the old processes of legal services education and delivery but be warned, it will not address the clouds above us and on the horizon. At this stage, with notable exceptions, the sector does not yet fully appreciate that the emerging environment creates a unique opportunity to create a new framework and pathways that can deliver the strategic aspirations of a whole range of service providers. Managers and CEOs need to understand that the most important aspect of delivering strategy is the people and taking the same approach as they have always done is not going to help.

There are elements in the legal services sector where solutions are emerging, not least amongst the so called alternative providers and those firms that operate under a corporate model and don’t have the inherent baggage of the partnership culture. These include the ‘Big Four’, managed legal services operations and organisation like F-Lex.

The driving force for change in the legal services market in recent years has come from clients and the sector may well learn from them in terms of taking a broader approach to recruitment of graduate talent embracing business development, process engineering and profitability, as well as core legal skills.

Nigel Savage is the interim CEO of the College of the Legal Practice and a non-executive director of Fletchers Solicitors.

Hear more original thinking about the future of legal education and training at  LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January 2020

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