The proposals for a solicitors qualifying examination are about the profession's future, so solicitors should get involved, says Sharon Montgomery
One of my responsibilities is to deal with our trainees in our seven-partner high-street mixed practice. I have had a trainee for most of my career and currently my firm takes on about two trainees a year. But the number of people doing the legal practice course seems to have increased enormously in recent years, and the exam results are making it more difficult for us to assess trainees’ capabilities.
The LPC is delivered by many different organisations and in different kinds of ways, and it seems to be very expensive for prospective trainees. I have wondered whether the LPC, in its current form, was any use to anyone, and what sort of exam would best suit the profession instead. Do we need people coming into the profession with a qualification but not the skills needed in practice? And what standards can we say are being maintained when the LPC pass rate varies from below 50 per cent at some institutions to near 100 per cent at others?
Last year’s consultation paper suggested there would no longer be a two-year training contract. I could not see that would help anyone. Thankfully, the latest consultation, published on 3 October, appears to have taken on board many of the comments and criticisms. That can only be constructive, and it seems there are some sensible suggestions.
It is logical that stage 1 might be taken before what is called ‘work-based experience’, which I suppose really is just a training contract by another name. There is also a suggestion that rather than take stage 2 – the legal skills part – before the training contract, this should be done at the end.
The proposal is for pass and fail rather than grades. Without wanting to upset any recently qualified students, I am not convinced that the current grading system is helpful. It seems that the majority of people get distinctions or commendations. It does not help us in choosing trainees.
I would like to think that there would be a common grading system so that the same number of people would pass regardless of which institution they were at, provided they have reached the appropriate standard. But I am not at all happy with the suggestion that there should still be computer-based multiple choice. I just cannot see that that is acceptable or appropriate.
A comparison of sorts might be to look at the kind of papers that are sat by solicitors taking the specialist marks. This could be for mediation, for example, or to be on other specialist panels. These usually involve some serious understanding of the area and are certainly not multiple choice. Multiple choice is used for the conveyancing quality mark and for the wills and inheritance quality scheme.
There seems to be an acceptance there should be a proper period for a training contract. There has been some discussion about whether this should be 24 months or a different time. The training contract or articles has been two years plus a degree, or five years in total. There is no reason that it should be less than two years. There is already flexibility which allows time spent working in a law firm to be taken into account. This can already shorten the two years. But two years is really needed.
The proposal is that it does not have to be a formal training contract, but instead you could be an apprentice or paralegal, or even a placement within a degree. This would be a dilution of the training contract. Paralegals can be doing very basic work for long periods. A formal training contract offers more than that. I do, of course, acknowledge that people may have many years of very good experience that they have not had as part of the training contract. I am, however, concerned about devaluing the importance of the training contract itself. The very expression ‘work experience’ does not suggest anything as important as a training contract.
Stage 2, it seems, is the part which is not multiple choice and that is the reason why it is more expensive.
I can see that the SRA is suggesting there should be various different ways of qualifying, depending on whether you are a graduate or an apprentice. There are even suggestions that some law degrees may incorporate part of the SQE preparation.
Overall, I am pleased that it is considering new options. The SRA has taken on board a lot of the criticisms from last year. I am certainly going to be responding to the consultation and I hope that other people involved in training solicitors also do, especially solicitors. We are employing the trainees and we are later employing the newly qualified solicitors, and it is essential for the future of the profession that we pay a full part in making decisions about any changes.
Sharon Montgomery is a partner at Crane and Staples