Vocational Legal Education in England

legal training

Challenges and Opportunities

Vocational legal education in this country is at a crossroads. Nine years on from the Legal Education and Training Review, huge changes have now taken place in the academic and vocational pathway for solicitors with the introduction of the two-part Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), the “super- assessment” for new solicitors. The mid-2010s also saw the piecemeal development of several legal apprenticeships1 which have had some success but which are now showing their limitations. Outside the SQE and apprenticeships, a wide range of professional and membership organisations offer prospective lawyers their own qualifications and recognition.

Meanwhile, legal services are an economic success story. A 2020 Law Society/KPMG report estimated legal services turnover in England and Wales at roughly £40b a year and a total contribution to the economy (GVA) of about £60b. The sector supports around 552,000 full time employees and there are a little under 12,000 law firms (plus in-house teams). Legal services are a big net export and ours is the second biggest market in the world (after the US). Sources: Law Society/KPMG report; Businesswire 2020 data. The sector is evolving at pace: legal technology and AI are beginning to automate some tasks and new areas of law are emerging (cybersecurity, blockchain for example).

But Law is also a sector that continues to be plagued by barriers to access for those from non- traditional backgrounds. 22% of qualified lawyers attended fee paying schools compared to 7% of the general population and the differences are greater at larger firms and at more senior levels. This is damaging in many ways – perhaps most notably, currently, in the pay spiral and long hours culture that is prevalent in some parts of the sector. Many law and legal practice course (LPC) graduates incur costs of £60K or more only to find they cannot get a training contract or pupillage. Access is more challenging for those from minority ethic and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

The current complex landscape of vocational legal education, with its myriad qualifications, professional and membership organisations and professional titles, few of which link together in any meaningful way, is an unintended brake on social mobility, diversity and inclusion. Perversely, and far too often, it restricts rather than widens the options for future professionals in the sector – lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

Through the reform of legal apprenticeships and the ongoing development of a T Level in Law, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address these issues and support the creation of a legal sector that is more diverse, inclusive, healthy and successful.

This paper is a primer for all those interested in how we work across the sector, including with clients and consumers, to improve the current landscape for vocational legal education. It also makes some suggestions about the way forward. These suggestions will not all be correct: some can certainly be improved upon and others, when tested, may prove to be wrong. However, they are made to stimulate the engagement and debate that we badly need.

You can read the full paper here.