Solicitors will no longer need to have a degree in order to qualify under a radical shake-up of legal training that it has been claimed could spell the “death” of some law undergraduate courses.
The changes, outlined in a policy statement from the Solicitors Regulation Authority this week, aim to make it cheaper to qualify as a solicitor and to attract a greater diversity of people into the profession.
Currently, the main route to qualification is for a student to take an undergraduate law degree followed by a legal practice course, or a graduate diploma in law after a bachelor’s degree in a different subject.
This is then followed by a two-year training contract in a legal firm.
But according to Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA, this route is a “straitjacket” that “doesn’t really fit with the modern world”.
This was because there were a “greater variety” of institutions offering legal services and more paralegal and specialist roles within firms, she explained, so a degree-only route “no longer seems appropriate”.
Instead of requiring solicitors to go down this university route, they would be able to qualify simply by demonstrating that they have the “skills, knowledge and attributes” required of the profession, she said. “We don’t mind if you have a law degree or not. It’s none of our business.”
The SRA had not decided exactly how it would assess potential solicitors, she explained, or who would test them on their skills. It might still require them to have undertaken a period of practice before they can qualify, she added.
The shake-up would “open up the market for competition”, she said.
This meant that universities could find “exciting new ways they can reach students they wouldn’t otherwise reach” and help them “overcome the financial barriers” by offering less expensive legal courses, for example higher level apprenticeships, she added.
Nigel Savage, president of the University of Law, said that the reforms could mean “the death of some turgid law degrees that have developed over the years”.
But Peter Crisp, dean of BPP Law School, cautioned that the degree route would still remain the main way people qualified to become a solicitor. “Most solicitors will continue to qualify by the traditional route,” he predicted.
Apprenticeships might be taken up by some, he said, but major law firms would continue to take graduates because they wanted them “oven-ready” for work and did not necessarily want to train them.
He added that BPP was working with a number of law firms to develop a new legal apprenticeship course.
Ms Brannan argued that currently there was no way of knowing what level students had reached at the end of their course, but a standardised test would ensure that “everybody who goes through that is at the same level”.
The current university-based route will operate until 2017-18, she said, while the new assessment system would be phased in beforehand.