It is invariably true that moves designed to increase the proportion of women in occupations and professions are preceded by a lowering of standards, and as more women enter those professions, standards continue to be lowered – while the quality of service provided falls, and costs increase. For many years a majority of law graduates have been women, and the dumbing down of the legal profession is about to be accelerated. A piece in today’s Times, emphasis ours:
School leavers will no longer need to go to university if they want to become lawyers after regulators approved the biggest reform of legal education for a generation.
Under the changes, which take effect from next September, people can join law firms as apprentices on the government’s “trailblazer” scheme. Then, after gaining mandatory work experience, they will be able to sit a new two-part solicitors’ qualifying exam to become fully qualified.
Regulators have confirmed that at present more than 700 apprentices are working at law firms on that programme.
The move to reform legal education — which partially echoes the qualification process of 50 years ago, when articled clerks often paid firms to give them on-the-job training before sitting a final exam run by the Law Society — is highly controversial. Many solicitors and legal academics have accused the Legal Services Board of “dumbing down” entry requirements with the updated regime.
Officials at the board, the regulator for all legal professionals in England and Wales, approved the reforms this week.
Proponents of the overhaul, led by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), claim that it will broaden access to the profession to a wider pool of students from less traditional socio-economic backgrounds.
They say that the present system of qualification, which normally requires a law degree or conversion course diploma for non-law graduates, plus a postgraduate course and then two years’ on-the-job training, is complicated and expensive.
It is estimated that for many students aiming to qualify as solicitors, the new regime will reduce their fees by tens of thousands of pounds. At present postgraduate fees alone in London can cost students qualifying as solicitors about £30,000 and it is predicted that the new regime will cut two thirds from that expense.
In authorising the regime this week, Helen Phillips, chairwoman of the Legal Services Board, said that it aimed to “ensure consistency of standards and improve diversity access to the sector”.
Dr Phillips added that the reforms were designed to “help increase consumers’ trust and confidence, create a profession that better reflects society, and widen access to justice”.
She conceded that the shake-up to legal education was “not without risk” and that the solicitors’ watchdog must “monitor and evaluate implementation and conduct research to understand the impact of the [reforms] on diversity and inclusion”.
The reforms have triggered controversy ever since they were first mooted about five years ago. In 2016 Anthony Bradney, a law professor at Keele University, published an 18-page diatribe through the Politeia think tank damning the proposals as “dumbing down the law”.
Professor Bradney concluded that “emphasising the lack of connection between degrees and qualification, as the SRA is doing, when other occupations are doing the reverse will diminish confidence in solicitors”.
Leaders of the solicitors’ regulator strongly contest that criticism. Anna Bradley, chairwoman of the SRA, told The Times that the updated process “will be a tough, but fair, assessment of practical legal skills and knowledge. People will have to work hard to pass and I know that many involved in our pilots were disappointed by their results.”
Ms Bradley said that while nearly half of students continued to go to university, “we expect that the majority of those who qualify under the SQE are likely to have a degree”.
But she emphasised: “Non-degree routes, such as apprenticeships, will be an attractive option for many people for whom university does not appeal and who want to learn — and earn — in the workplace straightaway.”
The SRA said that apprentices that reached level seven of the scheme would be considered to have the equivalent of a university degree and that they could go on to sit the new exam for qualification.
The process would take five to six years of on-the-job training, but the advantage, say proponents of the scheme, is that those qualifying through that route would be able to earn at the same time.
The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors, was critical of the proposed changes, but this week its officials were resigned to the change. “The introduction of the SQE will mark a big change in how aspiring solicitors begin their career in law,” said David Greene, the society’s president, adding that the new qualification process “has the potential to broaden access to the profession”.
• Qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales can cost today’s students the best part of £60,000 including university fees.
• At present prospective solicitors who did not read law at university must complete a graduate diploma, for which fees can be more than £12,000. Then they must complete the legal practice course, where fees can run to nearly £17,000.
• Under the new regime students would be able to join a law firm apprenticeship, be paid for their qualifying work experience and sit the solicitors’ qualifying exam, for which the fee is £3,980.
• It is envisaged that students taking that route will sign up for crammer courses that are designed to prepare them for the two-part exam. Fees for those courses are expected to be set at about £6,000.
• That amounts to just under £10,000 in fees under the new regime — a reduction of £50,000. Students would also be able to earn while working as apprentices.
For much of the time that the new solicitors’ qualifying regime was in gestation, the legal education establishment was trying to stop it (Jonathan Ames writes).
Railing against the proposals, Anthony Bradney, a law professor from Keele University, said the reforms would “inevitably lead to courses that teach you how to pass”, which he derided as “cramming courses, with all that that implies”.
The junior lawyers’ division of the Law Society lambasted the plans, not least, it said, because of the multiple-choice element to questions on the new exam. This, the group claimed, would potentially trigger a lowering of standards and diminish regulators’ ability to assess students’ legal knowledge.
Peter Hungerford-Welch, associate dean at the law school at City, University of London, said that solicitors’ firms were worried by the reforms. “Part of their concern is that students who pass SQE1 [the first stage of the new solicitors’ qualifying examination] without having gone through a law degree or GDL [graduate diploma] may lack the deeper understanding of the law, and the ability to apply it,” he said.
Professor Hungerford-Welch predicted that “it is likely that when it comes to recruitment, firms will look more favourably on applicants with an LLB or GDL”.
Peter Crisp, pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Law, the biggest provider of postgraduate legal education in Britain, described this week’s reforms as a “monumental moment”.
But he added: “As one partner in a major City law firm put it to me, ‘We do not want trainees arriving in the firm with less knowledge and fewer skills than they have now.’ ”
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