Speech

Westminster Legal Policy Forum Keynote Seminar: Implementing the Legal Education and Training Review

Location: The Royal Society

This seminar brings together key stakeholders and policymakers to discuss major developments towards implementing the Legal Education and Training Review. Julie Brannan, SRA Director of Education and Training, delivers an address one year on from the launch of the SRA's Training for Tomorrow policy statement.

Implementing the Legal Education and Training Review - Brannan, J

Good morning, it's a pleasure to be here today.

At this conference this time last year, we set out a radical programme of fundamental reform to the education and training of solicitors.

Our ambitious plans were reported widely in the media - to slash red tape, make CPD more effective and, most significantly, to open the doors for new ways to qualify as a solicitor.

We set expectations high and outlined a challenging timetable to deliver our plans.

We're now one year on and so it's good to have this opportunity to take stock and reflect on what we have achieved so far.

Before I do, though, I would like to recognise the huge amount of input we've had from those working in the profession, academics, training providers, employers and members of the public. People have come to workshops, responded to consultations, invited us into their firms, commented on drafts, participated in online questionnaires. I know many of you in this room have been involved in helping us with our work and we're very grateful.

You've given us new ideas; you've challenged us; you've refined our thinking and you've contributed to the discussion around all of our education and training work - as well as the really important question that I'm going to focus on today - what standards should we expect of solicitors?

Progress so far

But let's start by reviewing progress to date.

First, we promised a bonfire of education and training regulations: those rules, processes and procedures that do nothing to assure standards, but which we had continued with for no other reason than that we'd always followed them - the requirement for students to enrol with us; restrictions on the number of trainees a firm could train; prescribing the terms and conditions of employment of trainee solicitors (down to specifying how much annual leave a trainee solicitor could take); and a raft of other rules and regulations – they've all been scrapped. We're now consulting on more requirements we think can go.

This is a step forward - but none of this fundamentally changed the way solicitors qualify. Even the new "Equivalent Means" rule which we introduced this year, which enables individuals to qualify as a solicitor despite not having completed a Qualifying Law Degree, Legal Practice Course or Training Contract, still requires completion of the outcomes specified for each of these stages of training.

More significant is our shake up of CPD, following a consultation earlier this year. The new approach to continuing competence focuses on standards. It requires solicitors to do the training they need to remain up to date and competent to practise, so as to meet their professional obligation to provide a proper standard of service to their clients. It places professional responsibility on individuals, and the entities in which they work, to identify training needs and take appropriate steps to address them.

This renewed focus on standards goes to the heart of our regulatory purpose, to protect consumers and support the rule of law. If clients are to be protected and the rule of law upheld, solicitors must demonstrate they are competent to practise at admission and maintain that competence throughout their careers.

Our regulation of education and training shouldn't be about prescribing processes which people must follow - whether these are CPD hours or requiring particular courses to be completed.

It should be about ensuring that appropriate standards are set, defined and assessed.

Consultation – Competence Statement

Which brings me to the consultation launched on 20 October, seeking views on a new Competence Statement for solicitors. We have worked extremely closely with the profession, consumers of legal services, academics and training providers to identify what we think are the core activities that all solicitors must be able to undertake competently. These include being able to apply legal knowledge to clients' problems as well as being able to undertake core legal skills - research, drafting, interviewing and advising, and so on. And the Competence Statement extends beyond purely legal competences. It expects solicitors to be able to act honestly and with integrity, communicate effectively, understand the organisation and financial context in which they work and manage their own work activities effectively.

Accompanying the Competence Statement are two further documents. First, a Threshold Standard, which identifies the minimum standard at which an aspiring solicitor must be able to meet the competences set out in the Competence Statement in order to qualify as a solicitor.

And secondly, an underpinning Legal Knowledge Statement, which sets out in more detail the legal knowledge on which aspiring solicitors will be assessed before qualification and of which we say all solicitors must have a background awareness . The Statement of Legal Knowledge is broadly based. It reflects the entitlement to practise in the reserved areas contained in the Legal Services Act 2007. It also reflects what both consumers and solicitors told us - namely that while they recognise that most solicitors these days practise in particular areas, they expect solicitors to be able to spot issues outside those areas. Solicitors might not know the answer to the problem - but they should be able to recognise that there is a problem and worry away at it - seek help - do some research - whatever it takes - until they have got it sorted out.

Taken together, these three documents define a proposed standard for practice as a solicitor, both at qualification and throughout a solicitor's career.

There has been much debate around where this standard should be set. The LSB has expressed concerns that entry standards for solicitors should not be too high. And they are correct to point out that a requirement should not be imposed at qualification if it is not actually needed for competent practice as a solicitor. On the other hand, if we were to set entry requirements at too low a level, which failed to specify or assess competences which are essential for practice, we might create a generation of incompetent solicitors and we would have failed in our regulatory purpose of protecting consumers of legal services.

So where should we draw this line?

Our answer has been to base the standard explicitly on what solicitors do in their day to day work and the competences this requires. We have undertaken qualitative and quantitative research to find out what solicitors do, and what challenges their work presents. We have spoken to businesses and individuals who have used the services of solicitors as well as to a wide range of solicitors practising in different areas - nearly 2,000 people in all. The standards set out in the Competence Statement and its underpinning documents reflect this evidence base.

We have tried to capture systematically the essential activities which all solicitors must be able to undertake to a satisfactory standard. It is a hard thing to practise competently and safely as a solicitor. Holding solicitors rigorously to this standard is at the heart of our new approach to education and training.

Flexible pathways

But how does this focus on rigorous standards square with opening up new pathways to qualification? How can we have flexible pathways without flexible standards?

We've already started the process of opening up pathways to qualification. We are fully signed up to the new apprenticeship schemes in England and Wales which will enable people to qualify as a solicitor through working in a legal environment rather than going to university.

We believe there are real gains to be had from these initiatives. They offer a way for people to qualify who may not wish to go down the university route - or be able to afford it. Many older solicitors qualified at a time when university was free, or were even paid to go there. The landscape has changed in a way that would be unrecognisable to a person in the 1990s, when the LPC was introduced. University now costs £9,000 a year and publically-funded student loans are not available for the LPC.

For some aspiring solicitors, this is a significant barrier to qualification. For the profession as a whole, it means that the best, most able people are not necessarily the ones who qualify.

Our training framework must recognise that this is the new landscape and respond to it. Ensuring we have a strong, effective, independent and diverse profession is critical to protecting consumers of legal services and this means the training framework must enable the best candidates to qualify as a solicitor - not simply the ones who can afford it. Encouraging bright, ambitious people from all backgrounds to qualify as solicitors can only strengthen the profession and therefore better protect clients. And we need to focus not just admission but on progression, too, to see a properly diverse profession in all parts of the legal services market.

We see the Competence Statement as an essential tool in achieving this and we would particularly encourage strong responses on equality issues in our consultation.

Assessment

So opening up pathways to qualification is about people being able to qualify in different ways. Very emphatically it is not about people qualifying in easier ways. Our agenda has nothing to do with dumbing down. We have now defined in an explicit and systematic way what the standard is for entry to the profession. All aspiring solicitors, regardless of how they get there, must demonstrate that they meet this standard. It is not a flexible standard.

Market confidence in the qualification and assessment framework will require all pathways to assure this standard rigorously and it will require demonstrable consistency between pathways. But if different pathways involve learning in radically different ways, how do we ensure this consistency?

Traditionally we have sought to ensure consistency by specifying a single pathway to qualification and prescribing the pathway in minute detail - down to the amount of teaching, the method of teaching, the order in which subjects should be taught and how universities should assess their students. These processes serve as a proxy for consistency of outcome, in a structure where large numbers of different organisations assess students. But they do not guarantee consistency of outcome and they add cost and create inflexibility. To what extent can we dismantle our prescription of processes and procedures, and introduce different pathways, without sacrificing rigour, reliability and consistency?

Answering this question is the next phase of our work.

A number of options are on the table, although there's still a significant amount of work to do to explore them, and we'll be consulting on proposals towards the end of next year.

We could continue to prescribe specific pathways (QLD/CPE + LPC + training contract, or the new apprenticeships, or the QLTS) so long as they're aligned to the competence statement, and provided there are mechanisms to ensure consistency between pathways.

We could authorise any training pathway proposed by a training provider, so long as it enables a candidate to demonstrate they can perform the activities set out in the Competence Statement to the standard required, again provided there are mechanisms to ensure consistency.

Or we could develop a new, centralised assessment that all candidates are required to undertake at the point of qualification, regardless of how and where they've trained. What pre-requisites we might require of candidates would need to be determined. We might require completion of a period of practical experience, or completion of a recognised pathway - or, at its most radical, the assessment might be open to all comers. Decisions about pre-requisites alone are complex and would create very different training environments.

A centralised assessment is certainly the direction of travel among other professional regulators. The different regulatory bodies for accountants have them. The General Pharmaceutical Council introduced a centralised assessment some years ago. The GMC has just announced plans for a centralised point-of-qualification assessment for doctors and the BSB has introduced a centralised assessment for part of the BPTC.

A centralised assessment would provide certainty about consistent standards. But we would need to take care that it really tested the competences required for practice - a return to the rote learning of the old Law Society Finals would be a backward step and would be undesirable. We would need to include skills assessments as with the QLTS - and this would come at a cost. We would also need to ensure that the assessment was feasible.

There is a lot more work to do to explore and evaluate all options. But whatever we choose must deliver an assessment framework that is rigorous, reliable, fair, feasible and it must validly test those competences required for practice as a solicitor.

Conclusion

So to sum up, I think we've made significant progress since we set out our plans this time last year.

Our proposed Competence Statement for solicitors defines the standard of practice more rigorously than in the past at the same time as laying the foundations for new opportunities to qualify.

But the hardest phase of work lies ahead of us over the coming year in the work to develop an assessment framework for the Competence Statement. As I have said, we plan to publish a consultation on this in Autumn 2015.

This is an exciting prospect for us all. It could herald significant change. Certainly it provides a massive opportunity for us to ensure the training and assessment of solicitors is fit for the future. I'd really encourage you all to continue to be involved and tell us what you think.

Thank you.