We don’t need many reminders that the legal profession is in a state of flux. But we got it anyway when Gateley recently became the UK’s first PLC law firm – with Irwin Mitchell in hot pursuit. Such developments raise huge questions about the future of the legal profession, not least in how law firms will train and develop a future generation of lawyers to suit very different models of legal business.
For unlike law firms, legal training hasn’t changed so much. LPC graduates still face fierce competition for around 5,500 trainee contracts each year. For the few who win a place with their law firm of choice, no doubt some will relish stepping into the well-trodden footsteps of those that have gone before. There is a reassurance in a process that has endured the test of time.
Others, however, may be forgiven for feeling that the format and substance of this training has so little altered over the years that it can’t reflect or support the next generation of lawyers, whose success depends on a whole new range of capabilities, often based on quite different career aspirations. Many more, for instance, do not see partnership as their long-term goal.
David Ball, Head of Talent Development, and Caroline Sarson, Graduate and Trainee Engagement Manager, at King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), agree that they are seeing career expectations changing at the point of entry into the profession. ‘The “traditional” career path at many firms was relatively linear, focusing on becoming a trainee, associate and then partner. Now, the challenge is to provide career structures and personalised development support that continue to engage and inspire talented members of a firm at all stages of their career,' says Ball.
Even for those who want to attain partnership, it’s not the same ride that previous generations enjoyed. Some may ask, therefore, whether the core tenets of legal training still apply. ‘Technical excellence is still fundamental, but we have to support other skills too – being partners in an environment where there are different ways of resourcing the business, being able to lead and inspire teams, bringing in business, being financially literate and also knowing how to build client relationships and engagement… We have to know how to play to different people’s strengths,’ says Ball.
With portfolio careers on the rise, traditional training contracts can prove very expensive too, if NQ lawyers then quickly leave for other jobs. Combined with new ABS structures of law firm, which challenge assumptions of what lawyers should be trained to do, Ball thinks there are a number of questions around what will happen to traditional legal education. The training contract may still be intact, says Sarson, but the next few years may be a period of considerable change.
In fact, there are signs that the sands are already shifting. Following on from the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) in 2013, the SRA has been reviewing the skills and knowledge required to merit qualification as a solicitor. And while consultation continues, reforms are filtering through.
Most notable, for instance, is the recent shift to allowing paralegals who have passed the legal practice course (LPC) to now qualify as solicitors without having to complete a formal training contract. They must show that they have gained equivalent experience to a newly-qualified trainee – which may in practice be difficult without the formality of the traditional training programme.
But it represents a shift in thinking: instead of a preoccupation with the process of training, it is now all about the outcome. This is reinforced too by the terminology. No longer is it a ‘training contract’ but a ‘period of recognised training’. It may seem small, but it signposts a willingness to accept and embrace new avenues to becoming a lawyer.
The new opportunities
Take new legal apprenticeships as another example of change. Launched in April 2013, the Higher Apprenticeship in Legal Services (or Cilex Level 4), offers school leavers an on-the-job opportunity to become a qualified fee earner. This could be an attractive option for those from less wealthy families, who may be concerned about rising costs in tuition fees – as well as those who may prefer to build good experience quickly rather than leaving it to chance with time-consuming qualifications that may not even result in a job at the end of it.
A number of established firms are already offering such apprenticeships, with hopes that some will go on to qualify as solicitors. But they are likely to prove particularly popular among newer ABS firms that can put school leavers straight into more process-driven work – Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) and Admiral Law have already embraced these alternative recruitment options.
We think traditional training routes are likely to prevail for those seeking top-end work at City law firms. But even here, the field is opening up. More firms are implementing social mobility programmes, working closely with law schools to identify and support into law those candidates who have the potential to succeed but may not have had the most favourable background to gain the best academic credentials. This could further reinforce more partnership between individual law schools and law firms too, making training more bespoke to the needs of each business, while transforming the perception of what it means to be a successful law candidate.
For Ball and Sarson, much of the change may yet be to come, but a shift from process to an outcome focus, will, they think, ‘change the way we work’. Constant review is therefore critical. If, for example, the SRA introduces, as suggested, a centralised assessment for all would-be lawyers at the point of qualification, then Ball thinks it will fundamentally impact the criteria they use to laterally hire, say, five-year post-qualified lawyers in 10 years’ time. More generally, such change will require the whole profession to think more creatively, he adds.
This will of course impact our work as recruiters too. It is a space that we will have to watch closely to ensure that we can continue to support both law firms, and all those in legal talent management, to embrace what might well prove to be a whole new era of recruitment opportunities in law.