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All change please...!

16 July 07

The bigger training firms would like to see the Society's education and training review lead to enhanced skills training, and a UK-wide partnership approach

by Deborah McCormack

“Change”. Gordon Brown uttered it seven times in his first speech as the new Prime Minister.

If it seems like everything is perpetually in a state of flux these days, that’s because it is, not least the legal services sector, which is experiencing a period of dramatic and dynamic change affecting us all.

It is no longer a given that solicitors will be the trusted advisers of choice for consumers of legal services. Many of the services they provide fall outside the areas reserved to them by statute, and competition from non-solicitor providers is increasing.

If we as a profession are to protect the “brand” of solicitor and sustain our competitive advantage in a diverse commercial marketplace, we need to ask ourselves what it means to be a solicitor in the 21st century.

In McGrigors’ view, the Society’s ongoing legal education and training consultation is a holistic and constructive response to help us adapt to the change we are all experiencing, whatever your viewpoint on that change. The fundamental aim is to help the profession evolve and remain both current and relevant to consumers and practitioners.

When we started to discuss the consultation internally, two key questions were posed:

  • what is a “competent” solicitor?
  • and, once you have defined “competence”,
  • how do you create and continue to develop and maintain the required level of competence?
We believe that “competence” can be defined as the combination of:
  • technical knowledge;
  • commerciality, which comes from general commercial awareness and sector knowledge;
  • core skills; and
  • experience, or the opportunity to gain experience under supervision.

The current root and branch review is an opportunity for the Society, academic institutions, law firms (of all sizes) and commercial training providers to work together to build on already strong foundations. Together we can make the existing system fit for purpose in a marketplace which, in response to client needs, is increasingly specialised in focus.

Academic rigour should continue to underpin the foundation qualification, but if solicitors are to be commercially savvy, problem solving, and client focused, then legal skills and an ability to apply legal principles are critical. Interestingly, many of our trainees felt that the existing combination of the Diploma, followed by the Professional Competence Course, did not adequately equip them with the skills they felt they should be able to demonstrate on day one qualification.

During the consultation period, McGrigors and Dundas & Wilson co-hosted a meeting of some 20 medium to large firms to discuss the key issues arising. There was general consensus that improved skills training is fundamental. To help achieve this, the majority agreed that a review of the current Diploma is essential. A new Diploma would ideally adopt a more problem-solving, client and risk focused approach, reflecting real practice, but importantly remaining as an important bridge between the foundation stage of education and the work-based learning undertaken in the office. Unlike the ongoing Law Society of England & Wales Training Framework Review (which proposes a shortened period of work-based learning of a minimum 16 months), in Scotland consensus seems to be emerging that the traineeship, whatever the substance, should remain at a minimum of two years. We agree this is a sensible period over which to train, review and monitor trainees’ progress, given the volume of skills and technical training which they need to complete.

In the area of communication-based legal skills, such as negotiation, influencing, interviewing and presentation, we see great potential for introducing some consistency to the training framework across the UK. From McGrigors’ perspective, and that of an increasing number of Scottish firms, many of our solicitors now work in a cross-border environment. In light of this commercial reality, we are actively encouraging discussion among the respective Law Societies. Ideally, we would like to see the UK Law Societies work in partnership to streamline and harmonise the current training regime, and introduce a generic skills framework which would offer firms the flexibility to self-accredit and monitor, with light touch regulation by the Societies.

And as with every other profession, legal education and training cannot stop on achieving qualification. Membership of the profession should entail a genuine commitment to lifelong learning and a willingness to demonstrate continuing competence and ongoing development. Rest assured, if we do not demonstrate adherence to meaningful standards, the new Complaints Commission will impose new standards upon us.

Like many larger firms, we are able to dedicate some resource to integrate and deliver technical and core skills training for trainees and qualified solicitors. But no matter the size of the practice, it is up to all of us to promote and protect the reputation of the solicitor “brand”. We should not be complacent. Just as manufacturers continually strive to improve their products and processes to differentiate their brands, the profession must work together to continually improve our service and, through rigorous education and training and adherence to core standards, provide value, quality and assurance to our clients.