Pre-qualification work experience in professional legal education

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Summary

Work experience for intending solicitors

As part of its Training for Tomorrow project, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has been working with researchers at Nottingham Law School to explore the contribution of different kinds of work experience for those who want to become solicitors. This included the traditional two year training contract, but also looked at work as a paralegal or legal executive, in sandwich degree placements and university law clinics as well as short vacation schemes with firms.

Workplace working highly valued

Everyone agrees that learning in the workplace is valuable and important. It allows students to apply academic knowledge of law to the real world; exposes students to the “messiness” of real legal problem and helps them to understand how to work with real people, as well as introducing them to the way in which legal practices and departments are run. Clinics, law centres, legal executive work and not for profit organisations tend to focus on work for individuals, often those in great need. Vacation schemes and training contracts tend to focus on commercial work, frequently with larger law firms.

Positive experiences

However, what happens during the experience can vary widely, from observing colleagues and routine administration to considerable responsibility for clients and files, carrying out advocacy and undertaking negotiation. Positive experience allows young lawyers to develop new skills such as team-working. They can apply what they have learned in the classroom to a more complex context and deal with real world issues such as a client’s emotional connection to their problem. It allows potential solicitors to understand how professional ethics, duties to clients, professionalism and responsibility operate and are challenged in practice. This can be found in many training contracts, but also in some placements, university law clinics and paralegal work.

Paralegal work

Some experience is, however, more limited. Some junior paralegal work is largely administrative. Short vacation schemes seem to work best as a way of informing career choice and as part of a firm’s recruitment processes. Paralegal work prior to a training contract is quite normal, though not universal, and can sometimes continue for many years. Interestingly, becoming a trainee after having been a paralegal can, for some, involve a decrease in client contact, personal autonomy and responsibility as their role shifts from managing a case load of their own to supporting a senior fee earner with their case load.

Links to SRA competences

A number of the SRA’s competences (e.g. legal research, taking responsibility for one’s own learning, taking steps to obtain help, communicating clearly, analysing problems, obtaining facts and drafting) appear in most kinds of work experience.

Opportunities to learn about ethics, teamwork, the commercial background of the organisation, personal autonomy, responsibility and time and workload management are provided in most training contracts and in some other kinds of work experience.

However, lack of opportunity to acquire, develop or demonstrate competences in client contact, advocacy and negotiation is widespread, including in some training contracts.