Legal education reform proposals are an opportunity as well as a risk — and students must have a voice

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By David Ball and Caroline Sarson on

King & Wood Mallesons’ David Ball and Caroline Sarson want to safeguard quality and boost diversity while improving the scope of assessment


Amid all the debate about the proposed ‘solicitor super-exam’, it’s beyond argument that the existing legal education and training regime is going to change — one way or the other.

Of course, at this stage nobody knows how radical that change will be. At one end of the spectrum there is the possibility of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) being discontinued in favour of a combined ‘super-exam’ that would be open to both graduates and non-graduates. At the other, there is discussion of much more limited reform of the existing training framework.

As senior figures in legal education give their views on the proposals — as part of the ongoing ‘Training for Tomorrow’ consultation — it is also important to listen to the opinions of students seeking to enter the legal profession.

It’s these aspiring lawyers who, after all, are directly feeling the effect of a sharp rise in the cost of undergraduate degrees, and as a result can expect to enter the working world burdened by significant debt. This is why we are hosting an event on Wednesday to discuss the consultation. You can apply for one of the last few places at the free session here.

Students’ voices are currently being heard largely through forums like Legal Cheek and Facebook. Understandably, there seems to be a broad consensus in favour of any steps that can be made to reduce the financial burden on them. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) argues however that the ‘super-exam’ would do just that — although there are other points of view being voiced through the current consultation.

At King & Wood Mallesons, in common with other global law firms, we have long sought to offset the financial burden on aspiring lawyers by funding the cost of law school for our future trainees. Alongside sponsoring both GDL and LPC fees, we provide students who have obtained training contracts with us a living expenses bursary of £7,250 for each of these courses. This policy ensures that we are able to recruit the best talent from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Our focus during the ongoing consultation is to ensure any changes to the education and training regime improve the quality of preparation for prospective solicitors.

To this end, we are particularly interested in the possibility of a greater emphasis being placed on the assessment of professional skills in addition to technical legal skills. At present the LPC is very much geared around the latter. Needless to say, technical excellent legal knowledge will continue to be an essential part of our recruitment and development processes, but our view that we also need to help develop and assess future solicitors’ practical skills is needed. It is the combination of these two areas that provides the starting point for every solicitor’s career in a modern commercial firm.

In this respect, the suggestion by the SRA that assessment of students would cover both a technical exam and formal assessment of professional skills exam is encouraging. This element of the SRA’s proposal has potentially received less media attention than other aspects, but it is one that could have a positive impact on the development of future lawyers.

For now, many variables remain at play. For example, if students are to be assessed on their practical skills, at what stage would employers expect this to take place? Accordingly, would some form of ‘super-exam’ have to be split into two very distinct stages, with one part before the training contract stage and one point during it? And how would this impact the wider graduate recruitment process and development structures?

As these proposals would apply to the whole profession, it is equally important that there is consideration of the needs of firms without the resources to fund the cost of students’ vocational education. While quality of training must be paramount, the implementation of a framework that does not impose financial barriers on talented students entering the profession is key. Quite understandably, strong views are being expressed about the most significant proposed reforms to legal education in a generation. While there are obviously risks associated with change, this is also a fantastic opportunity to listen to different voices and, in doing so, make our world-class young solicitors even better-equipped to succeed.

David Ball is Head of Talent and Caroline Sarson is Graduate Trainee Engagement Manager at King & Wood Mallesons. They will be speaking at ‘What will the solicitor super-exam mean for law students and trainees?’ this Wednesday evening. Please get in touch if you have any questions.

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