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Society joins Edmonds' call for ethics training

29 November 2010

The Law Society has joined the chairman of the Legal Services Board, David Edmonds, in calling for a greater focus on ethics in the training of lawyers.

Earlier this month, the society, the Bar and ILEX announced a joint review of legal education.

Delivering this year’s Upjohn lecture, Edmonds said that “as a minimum”, the LSB would require a “changed and earlier emphasis on the teaching of professional ethics and wider responsibilities to the client”.

He went on: “We need to look again at the very nature of what it means to be a lawyer – and then evaluate what skills we need, how we develop them and how we test them.”

Querying the suitability of current learning methods, he said: “Key legal skill is increasingly about how to find legal principles and apply them to the circumstances of the case rather than about accumulating knowledge per se.

“Practitioner skills are increasingly about the application rather than the academic knowledge of these principles.”

Lawyers’ preparedness to practise had to evolve to respond to current changes and in anticipation of alternative business structures, he continued. Whether knowledge was academic, acquired through “clinical legal education” or as on-the-job experience, all training methods had to be measured by the same yardstick – ensuring they equip lawyers with professional skills that consumers expect.

Training contracts, he suggested, shouldn’t be the only way into the profession and it was arguable that lawyers, like accountants, could learn on the job. This would increase social mobility and would also mean that students without training contracts wouldn’t pointlessly accumulate debt.

“We need to be alive to the impact of the government’s proposals on higher education funding,” he said. “An emerging opportunity for the sector is the increasing number of non-graduate entry routes to access – and I would like to see regulators do more to consider what this means for improving the gene pool of talent in the market.”

Edmonds was encouraged by current initiatives such as work-based learning but called for further innovation in legal education. “Over time we have seen the development of delivery methods that more closely align teaching to the demands of legal practice.

“As student finance becomes ever more difficult, I really hope that we see this type of initiative being taken even further. For those leaving school and aiming for a legal career, we need to see the total length of time spent in education – and so the total amount of debt – shrink.”

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, agreed that there should be a greater focus on ethics, particularly in the qualifying law degree.

“The legal services market is changing, and the challenge for the solicitors’ profession is to secure its standards in the face of these changes and overarching regulators who may not understand the profession’s previous approach to ethics while remaining competitive both in the UK and internationally.

“Any assessment of legal education and training needs to ask the question ‘what does it mean to be a solicitor in the post-Legal Services Act environment?’ The system must be sufficiently robust to support solicitors working in this new market.”

Hudson said the society would continue to work for a greater focus on ethics in the education of solicitors, including those studying for the Common Professional Examination or Graduate Diploma in Law, but particularly for the qualifying law degree.

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Regulators Education & Training Courts & Judiciary