This article was guest-written by Craig Tickner, the President of CILEX (the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives) .
Around 21% of solicitors and 34% of barristers attended fee-paying schools, compared to 7% of the general population. More than half have parents with degree-level qualifications, compared to 19% in the general population.
The legal sector has a diversity problem which is perpetuated, in part, by the narrow focus on the value of a law degree, obtained from a very limited number of institutions.
This stance is not unique to the law - quality higher education has long been conflated with attending a university, diminishing the perceived value of technical education. There is, however, increasing recognition, in government and business, that a degree must not be seen as the only route to success and that this ‘one size fits all’ offer does not deliver the best outcomes for employers or students.
In legal aid, we are experiencing huge resourcing pressures and are vulnerable to the fall out from the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps more than any other area of the law, we need to unleash all the talents at our disposal and sweep away barriers to opportunity in both educational access and routes into employment.
As well as ensuring the modern legal profession welcomes practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds, it’s also vital that those lawyers have the skills they need for the 2020s.
It is no longer good enough to simply have the necessary legal knowledge to do the job. Employers need work-ready legal staff with practical skills and commercial awareness – skills too often lacking in those who have taken the traditional route into law.
Recruiting for skills not backgrounds is the only way we can open the door to a wider talent pool.
Most CILEX Lawyers qualify by fitting in study around work. Once qualified they have demonstrated that they can progress to become judges, advocates and partners in law firms. For so many, university education was not an option and without the possibility of evening or weekend study it would have been hard to progress in the profession.
Some do come through the university route and we do not discriminate between the two groups. What we insist is that they all qualify through a combination of practice and study and going forward we want them to gain business and personal skills as well as an understanding of the law in practice.
SQE v CPQ
When the new SQE route to qualification was announced there were high hopes it would broaden diversity and help to open up the sector. At CILEX we were genuinely intrigued to think we may finally have direct competition for a truly accessible route into becoming a qualified lawyer.
The reality is that the introduction of the SQE is unlikely to change the status quo. Although non-graduates with relevant work experience are welcome to apply, it is clear that the number of students fulfilling this criteria will be very low.
Unlike the SQE, the new CILEX Professional Qualification (CPQ) unveiled earlier this year, has no pre-requisite for a degree or equivalent qualification or experience. It is open to everyone with talent and the willingness to work hard and learn. As such it is a cost-effective, flexible and viable alternative to achieving a successful legal career.
Moreover, in a first for legal training in the UK, unlike the SQE, the CPQ introduces mandatory training on legal technology, business skills and emotional intelligence.
It is a progressive qualification across three stages: Foundation, which is aligned to the role of a paralegal; Advanced, which will be for those handling cases at an advanced paralegal level; and Professional, for those who want to be CILEX Lawyers in their chosen specialist area of law and with full practice rights.
Students with under- or postgraduate legal qualifications will not have to start at the beginning and existing CILEX students can either complete their current course of study or transition to CPQ.
Competence over qualification
The law is well behind many other professions in recognising that competence is more important than where or how a lawyer originally qualified.
Creating a diversity of routes into the profession of equal value and judging their outcomes through their professional impact and the impression they create amongst consumers of legal services would transform the law for the better.
The launch of the CPQ is a moment of radical change. It isn’t only transforming how lawyers are created, but also ensuring we recognise talented people of every background and from every part of our country.
Subject to final regulatory approval, CPQ will open for enrolments in July 2021. Students will be able to study through CILEX Law School or through a number of approved providers. To find out more visit the CILEX website.