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Route into law

To date, law

The proposed SQE will have two parts – a first knowledge-focused examination and a second examination with a skills focus. The latter would be modelled on the types of examinations in other sectors such as the medical profession and would likely include role-plays of client situations to test the client-service elements of a young solicitor’s skill-set in practice.

But how will this policy proposal impact the three traditional phases of the solicitor pathway into law and, in particular, the important ‘learning by doing’ WBL period? After all, this third phase in the learning pathway has often been hailed as a ‘shining jewel’ in the educational crown of England and Wales solicitor qualification, in contrast to the lack of practical experience required by other bars around the world – a perspective which is corroborated by our own experiences of accelerating young lawyers’ development through additional work placements.

The answer to this question is not yet clear. The outcome from the SRA’s consultation may still require junior solicitors to complete a period of ‘learning by doing’ before qualification, developing skills which the second SQE Skills examination would then test.

If the SRA does retain this practical element on the qualification path, it would align well with another recent UK Government educational policy announcement to encourage employers to be more supportive of apprenticeships. The recent launch of Trailblazer apprenticeships for the legal sector, which now provide a full route to qualification without attending university, was followed by the Chancellor’s autumn statement announcement that from 2017 an ‘apprentice levy’ of 0.5% of UK payroll will be paid by employers above a certain size, redeemable only against the costs of training apprentices whom they

employ. In other words, the government’s message to law firms, along with all other large employers, is that they should consider how best to deploy apprentices to maximise the benefits they derive from the levy’s funds.

The government’s recent support for apprentice careers, the classic ‘learning by doing’ model, is interesting given the backdrop and long debate in the UK over the last 20 years about the undervaluing of practical education streams and the preference for more academic routes.

Tony Blair’s government came to power in 1997 emphasising that its priorities were ‘education, education, education’. The message seemed to be, however, that university was the preferred route, with an aspirational target set at 50% of our talent pool to attend tertiary institutions. Other major policy proposals which argued for more emphasis on practical education received less support, such as the imaginative and well-considered 2004 Tomlinson Report (welcomed by schools, universities and employers) which proposed to replace GCSEs and A levels with a more inclusive four-level diploma and thereby establish greater parity between practical and academic qualifications.

There are many potential implications of all these policy changes for the legal sector, of which we highlight two.

Firstly, engulfed by the ‘perfect storm’ of market disruption and changing client demands we mentioned at the beginning of the article, law firms have increasingly moved away from a recruitment model which focuses solely on sourcing graduate trainee lawyers. Firms have looked at the skill sets and levels of experience required from their more junior team members by clients and concluded that having a more varied blend of trainees, paralegals, and now apprentices, is a good way to approach their resourcing needs. The regulatory/

firms have looked at their recruitment methods in order to achieve the diversity of successful applicants. For example, socio- economic contextual data has been utilised to understand better an applicant’s school results and their level of attainment.

governmental move to enable more plural educational paths into the profession is therefore timely to fit with this market need, and we anticipate that this trend will continue, and even increase, opening up more opportunities.

Secondly, the legal sector’s drive for greater diversity and broader access to the profession will be linked inextricably with the implementation of the educational policy changes; in particular in the ability to reduce the costs of qualification along the new educational pathways which the SRA and the government are defining.

To date, law firms have looked at their recruitment methods in order to achieve the diversity of successful applicants. For example, socio-economic contextual data has been utilised to understand better an applicant’s school results and their level of attainment. Our own firm, Reed Smith, was the first law firm to move to strengths-based recruitment processes, another change which has been proven to enable candidates from broader socio- economic groups to be successful.

Other professional service firms have taken a different approach, stating that they will consider neither A Level grades nor degree results in their recruitment processes – their sole determining factor will be the scores in their application procedure. In spirit, therefore, this last approach follows the SRA’s proposed approach exactly, saying, ‘we don’t care along which educational path you travelled, provided that you can reach the attainment level of our test’.

It promises to be an interesting two-to- three years in the legal sector. | Graduate Recruiter 27

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