Minding the skills gap
Liz Ritter discusses how best to prepare the next generation of lawyers for successful and fulfilling careers in practice
The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has created innovative and exciting opportunities for training providers and law firms to consider how to instil the skills, behaviours and knowledge future lawyers should possess.
The new centralised assessments will be challenging, testing candidates on their knowledge of all the foundational principles of academic law and of core practice.
Aside from rigorous knowledge and understanding of the law, aspiring lawyers will also be required to pass an assessment of practical legal skills, including advocacy, client interviewing, case and matter analysis, legal research, legal writing and legal drafting.
While the SQE focuses on this critical yet narrow set of practical skills, employers are conscious of the gap between the skills assessed as part of the SQE and the broader skills and attributes required in the workplace.
The legal sector and the way in which legal services are delivered is changing, and clients have different expectations and needs from the lawyers they work with.
BPP has carried out extensive research through our links with the UK’s leading firms and the wider legal profession, to find out what key skills are needed to succeed in practice and how we can help aspiring solicitors develop those skills.
A successful solicitor is one that truly understands the needs of their clients, can work with them to find innovative and effective solutions to problems and communicate those solutions clearly.
In addition to those skills assessed as part of the SQE, it is crucial that those wishing to qualify as a solicitor develop core skills and knowledge such as:
Collaborative working – Teamwork, using emotional intelligence and acumen to build and maintain strong relationships with clients, stakeholders and colleagues is critical. Solicitors must be able to collaborate in cross-disciplinary teams and projects and work effectively with people of diverse skillsets, competencies and viewpoints.
Creativity and adaptability – Keeping an open mind, understanding how to think outside of the box, challenge the way things are done and apply creative thinking to improve the ways in which legal services are delivered.
Reflection – Being able to reflect upon and evaluate past experiences, listen and take on board feedback and use that growth mindset to continually develop and improve.
Digital competencies – The ability to navigate and take advantage of a range of digital tools in a world that increasingly relies on technology for effective and efficient business practice.
The work of the O Shaped Lawyer group has highlighted that these skills (and others) are demanded by clients of law firms. Now more than ever, firms are looking for candidates who understand these skills and behaviours while being able to apply them in practice.
We asked the firm Travers Smith why it is important for its junior lawyers to develop a wide range of skills and competencies.
Senior learning and development manager Rachel Wevill told us: “We have always believed that there is more to being a lawyer than knowing the relevant law and how to apply it (although of course that is an essential start).
“There are many reasons why lawyers need more than knowledge: to look after themselves in what is an exciting but demanding career, to optimise collaboration with colleagues and fellow advisors at all levels of seniority, to delight clients with a service that provides so much more than just documents and advice.”
It is therefore essential that legal trainees develop such skills in order to succeed in practice. Despite the demand for these skills, not all these competencies are assessed or covered in the SQE.
And where these additional skills are covered, it is important not to treat them as an optional extra but as a fundamental and integral part of how lawyers interact with their clients and deliver legal services.
Bridging the skills gap
As before, employers will ensure junior lawyers will have the opportunity to develop these competencies within the workplace through their qualifying work experience (QWE) – the replacement for the period of recognised training or training contract.
However, firms are also looking to training providers to lay the foundation for this wider set of skills and attributes.
While a number of SQE prep courses will not go much further than the narrow SQE curriculum, BPP’s extensive research and collaboration with clients and partners in the legal sector has informed us that the profession requires a range of SQE programmes which allow students to build and strengthen core skills and behaviours while preparing for the SQE assessments.
Students learn more deeply and acquire skills much quicker when they engage in experiential tasks that utilise client case studies within a virtual firm, rather than those which merely prepare them for centralised assessments.
The research has also reinforced our course design strategy in other areas, such as the value of collaboration through live workshops, giving and receiving constructive peer-to-peer feedback, sharing ideas and perspective, and using collaborative digital tools to deepen understanding and find innovative solutions to client issues.
While many firms will decide that their future trainees must have foundational level knowledge and skills before they start their QWE, the introduction of the SQE opens up new, more flexible routes to qualification for those who wish to study alongside working.
Both paralegal and solicitor apprenticeships have grown exponentially since the introduction of the trailblazer programmes in 2016; and we will see a further increase as more apprenticeships are introduced for graduate level talent.
These apprenticeships present a valuable opportunity for employers to shape and develop their junior lawyers while attracting more diverse talent into the legal profession. Apprentices develop key skills and competencies in the workplace, gaining practical hands-on experience from an early stage in their careers.
They combine this development of skills with academic learning and preparation for the centralised assessments, all while earning a salary.
Those who choose to opt for an apprenticeship programme and law firms who hire apprentices will see this skills gap close through this invaluable hands-on experience.
Preparing for practice
The launch of the SQE in September 2021 isn’t just a huge shakeup of training in the industry, it also has potential to change the makeup of the profession in the future.
Legal education providers and employers have a responsibility for the development of the next generation of legal professionals and an opportunity to readdress how we prepare those aspiring lawyers for a successful and fulfilling career.
As Wevill told us: “The SQE has provided an opportunity to shift the emphasis from learning skills to living them: a great preparation for life in practice. “
It is critical that education providers continue to drive the highest standards of education to ensure aspiring lawyers are not only best prepared for the challenging set of assessments, but also to embed the business and personal skills that they will need for practice.
While this will allow law firms to attract the very best in future legal talent, it also delivers trust and confidence for the clients and businesses they may advise in the future.
Liz Ritter is head of business development at BPP University Law School bpp.com