Under the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Training Regulations 2014, paralegals who have passed the Legal Practice Course (LPC) may now qualify as solicitors without having to complete a training contract. Exemptions may be granted to an LPC graduate who can demonstrate “equivalent means of training”. Previously, exemptions were only granted under “exceptional circumstances”. What are the implications of this? A flexible route to qualification or an erosion of quality standards? This article will provide a case for and against this shortcut.
- With 65 people competing for every training contract, paralegal work is an increasingly attractive option for law graduates who are still on the hunt. At present, some paralegals may feel exploited by employers who tease them with the promise of a training contract. These regulations will ensure that paralegals are suitably rewarded and recognised for their “equivalent means” of training as their trainee counterparts.
- These regulations recognise the comparative suitability of work-based learning. The experience gained during a training contract is not necessarily superior to that gained as a paralegal. From the firms’ points of view, the initial investment in the employee is reduced and the employee can bypass the prescriptive ways of entering the profession. Many paralegals will welcome this flexibility.
- The term ‘shortcut’ implies that paralegals are cheating their way into the legal market. However, those eligible to qualify still have to undertake an LLB or a GDL followed by the LPC. Indeed, many firms require completion of the LPC as a prerequisite for paralegal positions. These regulations recognise that experience does not come from a degree alone, thus supporting work-based vocational training. The SRA have declared that the period of recognised training will be “no less rigorous” than previously and will be measured to the equivalent standard of a formal training contract.
- Widening access to the profession will not be popular for all. Those who have laboured through applications, interviews and assessment days to secure a training contract may be disheartened by the fact that it is no longer a formal requirement.
- The number of entrants to the legal profession currently exceeds the positions vacant. The legal market is increasingly competitive and it is likely many will be concerned about increasing the number of solicitors at a time when training contracts are scarce. The increased accessibility to the profession may lead to a saturation of the legal market and a subsequent dilution of the quality of legal services. Cost cutting is a concern for all firms, but at what expense? Solicitors will want to preserve their pay levels, which will be affected by oversupply in the market. The reputation and brand image of firms may be harmed, undermining confidence in the quality of legal services offered. This begs the question: Are the SRA’s assurances enough?
- Paralegals who have not qualified via the traditional route may be frowned upon or dismissed as inferior solicitors. The training contract rotation model traditionally offers trainees four to eight seats allowing them to receive broad exposure to the firms’ departments. However, a paralegal may have comparatively limited exposure. A couple of questions raised are: Can paralegals demonstrate the same depth of learning as a training contract? Will clients be willing to pay the fees of a newly qualified lawyer for someone who has been a paralegal for two years? Mark Stobbs, director of legal policy at the Law Society, echoes these concerns. He said, “We support flexible routes to qualification. But we question whether many paralegals will be able to satisfy the new requirements. It is important the SRA consults properly on any significant changes to ensure that standards are maintained.” It is clear that there will need to be appropriate regulation and guidance to ensure that only those who can demonstrate “equivalent means” of training will be able to qualify.
The Law Society’s calls to “consult properly” suggest lawyers will be given a chance to express their views. Overall, the shortcut offers greater flexibility into the profession and validates paralegals work on the same basis as trainees. However, these changes will attract scrutiny due to the oversupply of solicitors and the effects this will have upon firms’ reputation, fee structures and provision of legal services.