There has been much debate within the legal profession surrounding the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) proposals to radically reform the development and training of those wishing to enter the legal profession. With the SRA looking to move away from the traditional routes to becoming a solicitor, one wonders what impact this would have on the future of the legal sector.
One of the main aims of the reform is to encourage more diverse routes into qualifying as a solicitor. Suggestions which have been put forward to help achieve this aim include creating new opportunities for individuals to become solicitors without the need to attend university. This would be achieved through wider use of apprenticeships, for instance.
While I agree that reform is needed within this area, I question whether this is the best way forward for the legal sector. Solicitors have always been regarded as highly academic individuals who have gone through a rigorous and challenging combination of both academic and vocational training. As a result, solicitors are one of the most respected and trusted groups of professionals. Allowing for a route to qualification which does not include the need to attend university may lower the level of academic competence within the profession. Many solicitors deal with contentious issues and they are trusted to deal with these issues due to the high level of education and training which they have undertaken. If the requirement for academic excellence in the legal industry is reduced or removed, one worries what impact this would have on the way society views the profession.
My issue with these reforms is that I feel they are missing the point. Yes, it is true that access to the profession needs to be improved; but this is really an issue regarding the cost of becoming a solicitor and the availability of training contracts. There are an abundance of bright young students who have the academic capability to become the best solicitors, yet due to the current extortionate costs of both the undergraduate law degree – or Graduate Diploma in Law – and the Legal Practice Course, they cannot afford to fund the academic stage. Even if they are able to jump the costs hurdle, it is unlikely that they will find a training contract after completing the academic stage.
The point is that apart from the cost and the limited number of training contracts being offered, the current route into the profession works and ensures academic brilliance within the profession. Ultimately, if the system is not broken, why fix it? The SRA needs to focus its attention on funding the future generation of solicitors through the academic stage of their career and considering ways of encouraging more firms to offer more training contracts. In my opinion, the proposals the SRA have suggested run the risk of ‘dumbing down’ the legal profession and will be extremely detrimental to the industry’s reputation. Is that a risk we really want to take?