Junior Lawyers Division Executive Committee Meeting

Location: Chancery Lane

Julie Brannan, SRA Director of Education and Training, delivers an address to the Junior Lawyers Division Executive Committee.

Speech to the Junior Lawyers Division Executive Committee - Brannan, J

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

1 April 2015 was a significant milestone for our Training for Tomorrow review of the legal education and training of solicitors. On that date, we published our new Competence Statement for solicitors. The Competence Statement defines what all solicitors need to do competently and therefore what intending solicitors need to demonstrate in order to qualify. It provides a degree of clarity and transparency for solicitors, students, training providers and clients, alike.

With its publication, the first phase of our review of education and training - to define standards for solicitors - is largely complete.

We are now embarking on the second phase of our work - to develop an assessment framework for the Competence Statement for individuals wishing to qualify as a solicitor. The assessment framework we introduce must deliver two essential objectives: primarily it must assure standards consistently and rigorously; and it must also encourage a broad, diverse profession by promoting innovation and flexibility in the way intending solicitors are trained.

In our Autumn 2014 consultation on the Competence Statement, we identified three alternative models (or combinations of them) for the assessment framework:

  • First, continuing to specify particular permitted pathways and authorising education and training providers to teach and assess them;
  • Secondly, authorising education and training providers to teach and assess their own pathways for qualification as a solicitor;
  • Thirdly, introducing a new professional assessment, which we would specify and control, for intending solicitors.

Both during and after the consultation, solicitors and education and training providers have been giving us their views on these alternatives and we have been evaluating the options. Each of these models has its strengths and weaknesses. Let's look at each in turn.

First, continuing to specify particular permitted pathways.

This model could incorporate the current pathways - that is the Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) + Common Professional Examination (QLD) + Legal Practice Course (LPC) + Period of recognised training and/or apprenticeships - both which could be aligned to the requirements of the Competence Statement. This would be a comparatively simple exercise, and so one of the great advantages of this model is that it would minimise uncertainty and disruption - for individuals and training providers alike.

However, it would have significant draw-backs. It would not address issues with the cost of qualification. Alternative approved pathways that bypass the need for a formal training contract might address issues around the availability of training contracts, but risk being perceived to be second best. Further, the rigid structure would restrict innovation. Continuing with the current model would not provide us with the flexibility we seek in order to widen access to qualification as a solicitor.

In addition, this model provides us with a weak level of assurance that students are being assessed fairly and consistently to the same standard. There are a large number of organisations involved: in 2013-14, there were 104 providers of the QLD, 40 providers of the CPE, 26 providers of the LPC and 4,611 training contract providers. It would be surprising if standards were consistent across these numbers of organisations. We know that completion rates on the CPE and LPC vary substantially from one provider to another: in 2013-14, on the CPE, the highest completion rate was 98% and the lowest was 35% and on the LPC, the highest completion rate was 96% and the lowest 39%. Despite a system of external examiners in place, we don't really know why there is such a dramatic difference in pass rates from one provider to another. We don't know whether it is down to different standards, variable teaching or differential academic ability of different student groups.

It is a matter of concern to us that we don't know the reasons for these differences. There is a risk that this system is unfair to students and fails to provide the proper assurance to clients that their solicitors are safe to practise. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) report also highlighted concerns about consistency. It stated: "The perceived inconsistency of standards across the system, is a challenging issue for the LETR, particularly in relation to the qualifying law degree (QLD) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Such consistency problems are a function of scale given the number of different providers of the QLD and LPC..... Potential solutions to this issue are critical...."

The second option is the authorisation model.

There are some benefits in an approach whereby we authorise a range of pathways to qualification - it would create the desired flexibility and promote innovation. This option could enable providers to be highly responsive to market demands and enable employers to drive the development of courses which meet their particular needs. This is, broadly, what the LSB envisaged when it first started to push for greater flexibility.

But this flexibility makes assuring consistency even harder. Even if substantial resource and cost were put into such a system, it is far from clear it could ensure consistent standards between courses which did not have a common structure or assessment. We have not been able to assure consistency confidently even within the limited flexibility within the current system: it is unlikely that we might be able to do so with potentially many new routes to qualification. Without any common assessment across different pathways, this option could create the perception of first and second class routes to qualification and could be difficult for students to navigate their way through. This could of itself be a barrier to access. It could drive up costs, lead to blind alleys for the least informed and reinforce the lack of diversity because of choices made at a very young age.

The third option is to introduce a new professional assessment.

Of all three options, this is the one which looks as though it has the potential to ensure rigorous and consistent standards. Everyone who wished to qualify as a solicitor would take the same professional assessment. This would be fair to all candidates as well as providing reassurance to clients that their solicitor had been tested to the same, consistent standard. It would address the perception that some routes might be second best: whether you had gone to university or had trained through an apprenticeship, you would be assessed to the same standard. Specifying the assessment, rather than routes towards the assessment, would free up education and training providers to use their expertise to create new, diverse courses which would prepare students for the assessment. This approach could also help to make the market for trainee and new solicitors more merit based. Employers would no longer need to use imperfect proxies such as school or university attended, grades aged 18, or attendance at summer placements. Employers could be confident that the student was competent regardless of these prior factors. That means that any such assessment approach would have to have the confidence of employers as well as students and clients.

Our best route to widespread confidence in the market for legal services and in individual solicitors is through rigorous assessment against clear standards with transparent quality control and performance data. This approach would be very different from the old Law Society finals. There would need to be a new model, combining multiple assessments, serious quality assurance and testing.

Any such professional assessment would need to assess the competences in the Competence Statement - in other words it could not simply be a rote-learning memory test . It would need to test that individuals could interview and advise a client competently, could draft clear and accurate legal documents, knew how to research a point of law and understood how to apply legal principles to a client's problem.

Based on our preliminary evaluations of all three options, and the feedback we have already received, we believe that the introduction of a new professional assessment is the model which is most likely to assure standards whilst promoting greater innovation and flexibility in training. That does not mean to say that there are no potential risks or disadvantages with this route. So before we can take a robust proposal out to formal consultation, substantial work is needed to identify what the risks are and to work out whether there are steps we can take to mitigate them. We need to understand what the costs would be; the place work based experience would have; how the assessment could validly assess the competences in the Competence Statement; and how the assessment provider or providers could communicate to candidates exactly what would be expected of them in the assessment.

At this stage, all options remain open: we are not ruling out the other options. But we will be focusing our work on a possible centralised assessment. The question is: will this model better assure standards and be more likely to encourage flexible and innovative training methods than the alternatives. We will continue to compare it and test it by reference to the other options.

And we won't be doing that alone.

The Competence Statement was produced with significant assistance from solicitors, academics, training providers, employers and members of the public. Their ideas refined our thinking and helped give the Competence Statement its credibility. We will now be embarking on a programme of work with stakeholders to shape and test a proposal for a new professional assessment of competence. This does not mean that a decision has been made to introduce a new centralised test. It is perfectly possible that as a result of testing this model we conclude that it is just not workable, or that another option will better assure rigorous and consistent standards. But, if the proposal does stand up to testing, this will enable us to present a robust proposal for consultation, further engagement and refinement before any decision is taken.

Our proposed programme of work will include:

  • commissioning external research to test the reliability, validity and manageability of the a centralised assessment framework and methods to assess the Competence Statement;
  • commissioning external research to understand the potential economic impact of the introduction of a centralised assessment;
  • convening meetings and workshops with education and training providers, solicitors and students/trainees to test the validity and feasibility of the proposed centralised assessment;
  • engaging widely to consider the equality and diversity impacts for students, firms and consumers;
  • early engagement with possible assessment organisations, to test the feasibility of the proposed assessment approach; and,
  • most importantly we will engage with consumer groups to test their expectations - because public confidence is the core underpinning of the legal market and the solicitor brand.

If we get it right, we have an opportunity to ensure that the competence of all solicitors is assessed to the same, consistent and rigorous standard. This would provide a substantial measure of protection to consumers of legal services, enhancing the standing of the profession both domestically and internationally. At the same time, a greater range of training models can prepare students for the professional assessment. Employers would be able to work closely with education and training providers to create courses which support their particular practice requirements. Some prospective solicitors would learn on the job. Others may wish to go to university. Some universities might work with employers to provide students with a complete pathway from school to qualification as a solicitor. Other universities may decide to be more academically focused, and their students may wish to take additional courses to prepare for the professional assessment. But everyone who comes through each of these possible routes would have their competence to practise as a solicitor tested against a common standard.

So, much is at stake, and it is right that we test our proposals thoroughly so as either to jettison the proposal for a new professional assessment if it is unworkable or if it proves to be less effective than another option. But if we conclude it is the best option, the work we do now will enable us to take a robust model to formal consultation.

These proposals could herald significant change. I'd really encourage you all to continue to be involved and tell us what you think. Thank you.