Was It Worth It? Outlining the Legal Education and Training Review in England and Wales

There is endless discussion on how we go about preparing the lawyers of tomorrow to be well armed for the expectations their clients will have of them. Many law schools in all countries are trying varied approaches to achieve the best for their students, as well as for the working world with which they will have to engage. The downturn in the legal market, the decline in enrolments in the law schools, and the questioning of the value and relevance of an expensive law degree are issues faced by law firms, educators and regulators.

Now and then there is the opportunity for the legal fraternity to take a breath, step back and evaluate what it has been doing, and to suggest a better approach for the future. Such an opportunity came up in England and Wales several years ago, and resulted in the publication in June of a major review of legal education and training.

Predicting the shape of the legal profession and industry is the job of people like Richard Susskind who, among other roles, was an independent research consultant to the Legal Education Training Review. But suggesting how to actually best serve that future fell to the authors of the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), the first comprehensive review of legal education in England and Wales since 1971.

The report was commissioned in 2011 by the three regulatory authorities overseeing the legal profession in England and Wales – The Solicitors Regulation Authority in England and Wales  (SRA), the Bars Standards Board (BSB), and IPS, the ILEX Professional Standards Board. The LETR was undertaken by the UK Centre for Legal Education, examining the provision of legal education in the context of the current economic, technological, market and funding changes shaping the legal services market. Evidence was collected from practicing solicitors and barristers, law students, law librarians, and experts in the field of legal education, and the report was delivered in June.

Members of a working group of BIALL , representing British and Irish law librarians, were interviewed by the reviewers, and along with two colleagues, I was given the opportunity to explain the role that the recently formulated Legal Information Literacy Standards could play in legal curriculum planning for the future.

There were high expectations that some radical reforms would be suggested and perhaps adopted, maybe challenging the status quo, and perhaps including an emphasis on the importance of legal information literacy skills in the preparation of capable 21st century lawyers. For now, however, it seems these expectations will not be fulfilled.

For example, despite a joint approach to the commissioning of the report, the three bodies involved rejected a key proposal of the Review to set up a Legal Education Council (LEC) and declared instead that collaboration between the regulators was the way forward. As a result the BSB and the SRA have responded separately to the Review.

The BSB confirmed that it will be putting a six point programme in place to:

  • Establish a competency framework for barristers;
  • Align the Bar Training Regulations to modern regulatory standards;
  • Establish an outcomes-focussed approach to Continuing Professional Development;
  • Share data to support the BSB’s regulatory objectives in education and training;
  • Improve access routes to the profession; and
  • Collaborative development of Academic Stage regulation.

The SRA responded to the recommendations in its policy statement entitled Training for Tomorrow with proposals which will include:

  • Moving from a system where the SRA prescribes the pathways to qualification to one in which it sets out skills, knowledge and attributes that a new solicitor must possess from day one and one which will allow much greater flexibility as to how those competencies are acquired;
  • Ending the current “tick-box” approach to Continuing Professional Development and introducing a system under which it is the individual and their organisation’s obligation to tailor professional development to reflect their particular needs and circumstances;
  • Removing a number of technical regulations which require unnecessary SRA involvement in the detail of the education and training process.

A range of reform-related debates, conferences and discussions have recently taken place, organised by interested and involved groups. Hopefully the outcomes will feed back to the SLA & the BSB. For example, the well known legal academic Prof. William Twining published a summary response last month on the importance of the role of ethics and philosophy in legal training, and reducing an overloaded undergraduate curriculum.

Greater innovation has taken place in some American law schools than many in England and Wales due to the existing prescriptive nature of law courses here (see Prof John Flood’s post on The Missing Middle in Legal Education for a couple of innovative examples. Also see the recent post Law Schools can’t sleep through the Technological Revolution by Camille Nelson ). Many had hoped that the LETR would lead to similar innovation here, but the jury is currently out on the likelihood of any root and branch reforms. Of course this may be unfair, and we may end up pleasantly surprised to see innovative changes being proposed by the regulators.

On a personal note, although it was pleasing to see reference to the importance of legal research and digital literacy in recommendations no. 4.47 (p.135) and no. 7.15 (p.275) of the LETR report, the lack of hard recommendations for inclusion or exclusion of a range of newer essential skills makes it seem for now that the LETR may be an opportunity lost.

More meetings are scheduled over the next few months, and I will seek to report on any future changes via SLAW.

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