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Guest Blog - Neil Wightman

Elisabeth DaviesClimb every mountain

Panel member Neil Wightman's reaction to the Legal Education and Training Review report

25 June 2013

 

The legal education and training review has published its final report so ending the research phase of the review. Reflecting on eighteen months of discussion, debate and research, what has been achieved? As a champion of consumers I have to say not enough. There are some positives to take forward such as recognition that continuing professional development (CPD) needs more attention, that more needs to be done to assure the continuing competence of providers, and that there is a need to understand and develop learning outcomes. But overall have we missed an opportunity? I think yes.

 

Having been part of the reference group to the review I witnessed lots of talk about developing professional skills and understanding how lawyers interact with consumers. There was lively debate about the need to change but, as an outsider to the profession, I was left with the feeling that many still don’t fully buy in to the need for change. There was noticeable irritation at the very notion of the word consumer, concerns that the profession will become more regulated, and I sensed concerns that change would lead to unwelcome scrutiny and transparency. Why else would there be a rejection of revalidation of lawyers? Isn't it sensible and proportionate? The sad thing is that most consumers assume it’s already happening anyway. We are told that the reason for caution isn’t protectionism but costs, proportionality, and a lack of evidence that there is anything wrong in the first place.

 

So what more could the review have achieved? Well, it could have embraced the Legal Services Consumer Panel's wider shopping list; active quality assurance by regulators, periodic reaccreditation of practitioners, on-going competency checks, updated professional service standards and skills, training and education that is designed and delivered around the consumer - sorry, client -, a system of CPD that's fit for purpose, publication of complaints and performance data to aid learning and development and creating new access points to improve social mobility. I could go on. But most of all, it would have been wonderful to report that the way forward is to redesign legal education and training around the consumer.

 

I wouldn't like to give the impression the Panel is a lone voice; we're not, and there were a number of people arguing for more. But it seems to me that the majority of solicitors and barristers are not championing reform. Read the blogs or listen to what they say. Too often we hear phrases like: It’s not that we don't want to change but clients are driven by cost and nothing else matters; even if you did re-evaluate us, the client wouldn't know as they don't understand; there's no point reviewing quality as it would be too late because the advice has already been given; it just can't be done in the legal world, law is just too complex.

 

But are lawyers so dissimilar to doctors? The medical profession has spent fifteen years discussing and arguing about revalidation, quality assurance and dealing with incompetence. The challenge was described as climbing a mountain and that the profession is now at the foothills. But at least they have started the journey and soon doctors will need to renew their licence to practice every five years and demonstrate they are fit to practice. Revalidation has been embraced because it's better for patients, it's good for doctors and most of all it's the right thing to do.

 

So where does this leave legal education and training? Like most intractable issues there is a nod from the review team that the reports are not the final word but the start of the journey. But it's fairly obvious that we are still nowhere near the foothills of the mountain.