Professor Jane Ching and Pamela Henderson were recently commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to work alongside their own research team to explore the pre-qualification workplace experiences of individuals who may wish to become solicitors. The report, which forms part of the SRA’s Training for Tomorrow project, has now been published and can be found here, along with the literature review prepared by Jane.
As part of the research, the SRA conducted an online survey and we also interviewed participants from a wide range of legal roles, including trainee solicitors, paralegals, CILEx members and students. Some people we spoke to were new to legal work, but others had many years of experience. While many hoped to qualify as a solicitor eventually, this was not true of everyone; some people had changed their minds over time and some had always had a different career path in mind.
We explored the contribution to skills and expertise made by different sorts of work experience, such as the training contract, vacation schemes, university clinics and placements, as well as paralegal and legal executive roles. While it would not come as a surprise to anyone to learn that different legal roles provide different opportunities to learn, our research reveals the details of those differences, as experienced by individuals actually undertaking the roles.
For example, students who undertook short vacation schemes certainly valued those opportunities highly, but largely because of what they offered in terms of a taster of life in a law firm and the possibility of securing a permanent role with that firm. Trainees and students who undertook longer placements as part of a sandwich degree, on the other hand, had more opportunities to become involved in client work and to learn about how a law firm operates.
Work in the not for profit sector, such as Citizens Advice and some University Clinics, could be beneficial and distinctive, not least because of the level of direct client contact it afforded. The matters handled were usually not legally complex, but were of paramount importance to the clients, who might be facing severe problems, such as homelessness. Advice needed to be accurate, practical and speedy, but given with sensitivity and an awareness that the client might have little or no prior experience of legal problems.
There was considerable variation in the type of work performed by paralegals, which impacted upon the extent to which individuals considered that they were developing the knowledge and skills they needed to progress in their career. Some paralegals were performing largely administrative roles, whereas others were managing their own caseload. Significantly, as some paralegals progressed to a training contract, their autonomy reduced, as their role shifted to supporting a senior fee earner rather than having their own caseload. However, the files they worked on as a trainee involved more complex or higher value legal matters, offering scope to develop new skills and expertise, even as the opportunity to demonstrate responsibility decreased.
CILEx members also reported variation in the level at which they were working and the opportunities for progression that were available to them. In particular, new CILEx members were typically working at a relatively low level and with little autonomy or direct client contact. However, overall, CILEx members were more likely than paralegals to have the management of their own caseload and, over time, considered that they could develop their skills and expertise to the same level as their solicitor colleagues.
In terms of the particular skills which individuals felt they were developing in the workplace, some such as team working were almost universal. However, the extent to which individuals were able to have direct contact with clients was extremely variable, with some enjoying a lot of contact and others none at all. It is not possible to draw general conclusions about this, such as ‘paralegals have no direct client contact’, ‘trainee solicitors all have direct client contact’, or even ‘all University Clinics offer direct client contact’, as our research indicates that practices vary from organisation to organisation and may depend upon how a role is perceived and utilised, as well as the level of experience of the individual. Opportunities to develop skills such as advocacy and negotiation were extremely limited for almost all participants; where opportunities did exist, these were often confined to observing senior colleagues or counsel. While observing a colleague was highlighted as a useful way to learn key principles and to build confidence, it was not a substitute for direct personal involvement.
In short, there is a general view that workplace experience is important and offers valuable opportunities to develop at least some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for a successful legal career. Clearly, not all workplace experiences are created equal, but all have something worthwhile to offer.
The SRA’s news release can be found here.