Reform of legal training long overdue and much-needed

Law Society and King’s Inns monopolies fail to meet client and practitioner needs

As with the Law Society, the King’s Inns  syllabus is not derived from statements of the core competencies and standards that should be required of legal practitioners.

As with the Law Society, the King’s Inns syllabus is not derived from statements of the core competencies and standards that should be required of legal practitioners.

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Legal services are essential to almost everybody in the country at some point in their lives. These services are delivered by some 15,000 lawyers, including solicitors working in local high street firms and corporate blue-chip companies, independent referral courtroom barristers, and in-house legal counsel working in the private and public sectors.

Given the importance of the work of legal professionals to Irish society, it is vital that their education and training system is fit for purpose. But what exactly would a fit-for-purpose system look like? And how does our current system compare with this ideal?

The Legal Services Regulatory Authority has spent the past two years exploring these questions as part of its statutory mandate to review the education and training arrangements for legal professionals and report to the Minister for Justice.

To conduct this detailed exercise, the LSRA has held extensive consultations with key stakeholders, including law firms and providers of legal education and training, including a full-day symposium with some 100 attendees. It has commissioned expert research including surveys of aspiring solicitors, barristers, trainees and newly qualified lawyers, as well as consumers.

In doing so, the authority has reviewed the entire legal education and training system, with particular focus on what is referred to as the vocational or professional stage, in which trainee solicitors and barristers (some of whom will previously have studied law at third level) are separately instructed by two different organisations.

Real-life requirements

The Law Society of Ireland provides the only official professional training programme for solicitors. Applicants must first pass a set of eight exams known collectively as the Final Examination – First Part (FE-1). Traditionally, aspirant solicitors took several years to pass all eight exams, although in the past year the Law Society has introduced reforms aimed at accelerating this process. Barrister training is provided exclusively by the law school of the Society of King’s Inns, which also requires candidates to sit an entrance exam.

The review uncovered a lack of clarity in existing training programmes with regard to the professional competencies required of a solicitor or barrister

The evidence gathered during the course of the authority’s research and consultations shows that while there is universal appreciation of the need for quality legal education and training for the barristers and solicitors of tomorrow, there are diverging views on how this can best be achieved. Some parties believe the status quo should be retained and that any broad reform is unnecessary. Others, including the authority, believe the evidence from the statutory review exercise shows a need for major systemic reforms to improve and streamline access to best-quality professional legal training and to match that training to the real-life requirements of both legal practitioners and their clients.

At a most basic level, the review uncovered a lack of clarity in existing training programmes with regard to the professional competencies required of a solicitor or barrister once they have completed their professional training. The syllabuses set by the Law Society and the King’s Inns are not currently derived from statements of the core competencies and standards that should be required of legal practitioners in their professional working environment.

The evidence also points to the existence of both direct and indirect barriers to entry to the professions, including the substantial costs of professional training programmes and entrance exams, to the detriment of both aspiring lawyers and providers and consumers of legal services.

In terms of the quality of the education and training currently provided, the evidence shows unnecessary duplication in learning and assessment, particularly for those who have obtained undergraduate law degrees.

Lack of oversight

Worryingly for our legal services sector, it also highlights a mismatch between the skills taught in the current professional qualification courses and the practical needs of many users and providers of legal services.

The authority’s evidence-gathering process found a lack of independent oversight of the existing system of legal practitioner education and training. This is in contrast with the situation in other regulated professions such as medicine, pharmacy, physiotherapy, nursing and accountancy, where education and training is subject to oversight by statutory authorities. For example, in the case of the solicitors’ profession, the Law Society, which acts as the representative body for solicitors, is both provider and regulator of its own professional legal training.

The authority has just published its second report on this issue, and sets out recommendations for the Minister. Chief among these is our recommendation that it would be in the public interest that provision of legal professional training should no longer be a monopoly.

The authority recommends that an independent statutory committee, the Legal Practitioner Education and Training committee (LPET committee) should be established to set competencies and standards for legal practitioners.

The LPET would be able to accredit new professional legal training providers, based on a framework to safeguard and enhance training standards, and to guard against “a race to the bottom” and deterioration in standards for legal professional training.

Competency framework

The committee would draw up a competency framework to define the core knowledge, skills and aptitudes required by competent legal practitioners, the specific tasks they should be capable of performing, and the standard to which such tasks should be performed.

The committee would ensure that existing providers of legal education and training adhere to the standards required by this competency framework. It would also be responsible for accrediting new providers of legal education and training, as well as monitoring the quality of education and training, and promoting and encouraging innovation and diversity.

The LPET would ultimately also assume responsibility for accrediting undergraduate law degrees awarded by universities and higher education institutes, so that law graduates who wanted to enter legal professional training courses would no longer have to sit entrance exams.

The reforms are necessary to deliver quality legal services to a standard that all consumers deserve and which meet the needs of a sophisticated society and complex economy

In proposing these significant reforms to an education and training landscape which has seen only minimal change over decades, the authority is conscious of its statutory mandate.

Collectively, the authority members believe the reforms we are putting forward are both long overdue and necessary in order for Ireland to maintain an independent, strong and effective legal profession, and to deliver quality legal services to a standard that all consumers deserve and which meet the needs of an increasingly sophisticated society and complex economy. The authority welcomes the fact that Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has welcomed these recommendations and is committed to reforms in pursuit of greater equity and diversity in access to the legal profession, including its education and training structures.

Dr Don Thornhill is the chair of the Legal Services Regulatory Authority, an independent statutory agency established in 2016. Its key functions are to regulate the provision of legal services by legal practitioners, both barristers and solicitors, and to ensure the maintenance and improvement of standards

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