Need for easier routes to learning, says Christine McLintock
IS IT important that the solicitors of the future come from a diverse range of backgrounds? In an era of recession and student debt, is there anything the Law Society of Scotland can do to increase access to qualification as a solicitor and remove any unnecessary obstacles for those with the ability and desire to become solicitors?
These questions and more were considered recently, when the Law Society of Scotland completed a wide-ranging research project aimed at obtaining a better understanding of potential barriers on the route to qualification. The resulting report covers a range of issues from school pupils’ aspirations through the components of qualification to newly-qualified solicitors. Recommendations have been approved by the Law Society’s governing council, and the education and training committee has been given the task of implementing a two-year action plan to tackle some of the issues identified.
There are three stages to qualifying as a solicitor – the LLB degree, the vocational diploma in professional legal practice and the two-year traineeship under the supervision of a practising solicitor. Our starting-point is access to the LLB degree. If you do not meet the standard required to commence the degree course, you cannot easily go on to qualify as a solicitor.
During 2014, we will launch a pilot of a Street Law project in schools to help raise pupils’ aspirations. Street Law is a programme in practical law with a focus on the law that affects school pupils’ everyday lives. Early discussions indicate the project will be welcomed by schools. Linked to this is the issue of widening participation where there are already initiatives in place in a variety of universities. In June, we will be holding a widening participation forum, involving both universities and law firms to consider examples of good practice and discuss future initiatives.
Our research also indicates that completing a summer internship with a law firm while a student has a positive impact on gaining a traineeship, but a student who is working to support him or herself through the degree course might not be able to take advantage of an internship. To highlight the implications, we will publish best practice guidance for firms and raise awareness that recruitment practices might, inadvertently, act as a barrier to diversity. We also intend to launch a project with Adopt an Intern to increase the number of paid internships available.
At present, it is possible to study for Law Society professional exams while undertaking a three year pre-diploma traineeship with a solicitor. This is an alternative to the LLB degree. During this time, the trainee must gain experience in conveyancing, litigation and either trusts and executries or the legal work of the training solicitor if the traineeship is not with a private practice firm. However, this alternative route covers only the first stage of solicitors’ qualification – the LLB. We will undertake a consultation to identify whether an alternative route might be developed that would also cover the next stage of qualification, the vocational diploma in professional legal practice, while maintaining the standards necessary to ensure that the qualification process continues to produce competent solicitors.
The cost of the diploma is a concern to many. Currently, students have access to loan funding of up to £3,400 which covers a proportion of the tuition fees, the remainder having to be met by the student themselves. The future of funding is unclear, with the Scottish Government currently reviewing postgraduate funding arrangements.
We will continue to press the Scottish Government for the best possible funding package for diploma students and consider ways in which we can support and assist the profession to take on trainees.
While some of the issues are within the Law Society’s control, others are not. Consequently, we will be doing all we can to ensure schools, universities, the profession and government consider this important issue alongside our work.
We hope the initiatives will make the route to qualification as fair as possible while upholding standards in the public interest. We look forward to working with universities, firms and bar associations to make this happen.
• Christine McLintock is convener of the Law Society’s education and training committee. The report can be accessed at www.lawscot.org.uk