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Provide more innovative routes to qualification, LSB chair tells regulators

23 November 2010

Regulators should ensure that they provide more cost-effective and innovative routes to qualification for the widest number of aspiring lawyers, Legal Services Board chairman David Edmonds has said.

Delivering this year’s Upjohn lecture, Edmonds said at a time of greater fluidity in the legal services sector, the professions should be prepared to embrace change and be open to new ways of acquiring the requisite technical and professional skills.

The current system, he ventured, was too unrelated to the needs of working lawyers and the cost of legal training made demands that were simply too much on graduates.

The advent of consumerism, changes in technology, and broader social change meant that the focus should shift from being solely on traditional technical knowledge to client service skills – and this should continue throughout a lawyer’s career.

Meeting the LSB’s regulatory objectives set out in the Legal Services Act wasn’t “just about making sure that people jump the rights hurdles in their early twenties”, he said. “It’s about achieving a constant interplay between practice and education, with the two spheres in constant dialogue, each driving improvement and innovation in the other to the broader public good.”

This, the LSB chairman warned, would require the professions and the regulators to review the role of lawyers wholesale. “As a minimum, we will be looking at a changed and earlier emphasis on the teaching of professional ethics and wider responsibilities to the client… We need to look again at the very nature of what it means to be a lawyer – and then evaluate what skills we need, how we develop them and how we test them.”

Querying the suitability of current learning methods, he said: “Key legal skill is increasingly about how to find legal principles and apply them to the circumstances of the case rather than about accumulating knowledge per se. Practitioner skills are increasingly about the application rather than the academic knowledge of these principles.”

Lawyers’ preparedness to practise had to evolve to respond to current changes and in anticipation of alternative business structures, he continued. Whether knowledge was academic, acquired through “clinical legal education” or as on-the-job experience, all training methods had to be measured by the same yardstick: ensure they equip lawyers with professional skills that consumers expect.

Training contracts, he suggested, shouldn’t be the only way into the profession and it was arguable that lawyers, like accountants, could learn on the job. This would increase social mobility and would also mean that students without training contracts wouldn’t pointlessly accumulate debt.

“We need to be alive to the impact of the government’s proposals on higher education funding,” he said. “An emerging opportunity for the sector is the increasing number of non-graduate entry routes to access – and I would like to see regulators do more to consider what this means for improving the gene pool of talent in the market.”

Edmonds was encouraged by current initiatives such as work-based learning but called for further innovation in legal education. “Over time we have seen the development of delivery methods that more closely align teaching to the demands of legal practice. As student finance becomes ever more difficult, I really hope that we see this type of initiative being taken even further. For those leaving school and aiming for a legal career, we need to see the total length of time spent in education – and so the total amount of debt – shrink.”

His concerns were echoed yesterday in a report by the College of Law’s Legal Service Institute calling the Legal Practice Course to be the gateway to the profession and for the abolition of training contracts.

As the number of LPC graduates is falling and training contracts plummeting, the institute is also looking at alternative access to the legal profession as a whole.

Rejecting calls to control the number of students on the LPC, College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage said there should be no need for aptitude tests for students who had completed the three-year law course. “The real growth is the paralegal market – at the college we are focusing on recreating the old ‘five year’ route in a contemporary work-based context with flexible points of entry and exit."

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