Building an inclusive and diverse legal profession

21 Jul 2021 By Alison Hook

Alison Hook outlines the new solicitor qualification designed to offer flexibility to aspiring lawyers and help widen the talent pool

For business leaders, the path to increasing innovation and financial performance is through diverse and inclusive workplaces. Moreover, research shows that the chances and speed of problems being solved increases with a team of varying backgrounds and skills. To this end, human resource professionals are part of the front line to create a culture of change to address long-standing inequities that affect both professions and wider society.

The route to qualification as a solicitor in England and Wales has remained unchanged for more than thirty years. Over this time, the shortcomings of this system, particularly from a diversity and inclusion perspective, have long been evident. 

Those from less well-off or minority ethnic backgrounds have found entry to be prohibitive due to the costs of taking mandatory courses, rising student loan debt now averaging £50,000, and difficulty in securing a compulsory two-year training contract that is both scarce and fiercely competitive. Despite an abundance of passion and aptitude for the subject, many abandon the dream of a professional career in law, not for a lack of talent, but because of the barriers they face.

Addressing industry shortcomings

The consequence for the legal profession has been declining diversity. The current system has produced a pool of candidates who are drawn from an increasingly narrow range of backgrounds, experiences, and identities, despite the best efforts of any diversity access or bursary schemes.

But this is all about to change. From September this year, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has mandated that instead of a prescribed academic course delivered and assessed by universities, candidates will sit centralised professional assessments – the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). 

It will be up to the candidates (or their employers) to choose the best way to prepare for these assessments. Instead of having to secure a single employment contract at a prescribed point in the qualification journey, the necessary work experience will be obtainable in shorter stints, over an extended period. It could include volunteer experience with a university law clinic, paralegal work, undertaking an apprenticeship or moving between employers to gain diverse experience.

Rethinking recruitment, training, and skill sets

For HR professionals working in or with law firms, this new qualification system opens a host of interesting possibilities. Employers can now determine the training they want their lawyers to have and build this around a newly flexible, regulated qualification route, rather than being limited by it. 

So, while there is nothing to stop those who want to stick to the traditional approach of requiring a recruit to complete a postgraduate university course and follow that with two years of work experience, there is equally nothing to prevent the adoption of an “earn-as-you-learn”-style approach to training new talent, or a solicitor apprenticeship. 

For employers who have been reluctant to commit to a two-year training contract and who do not see themselves as training providers, suddenly new opportunities open to recruit part-qualified talent without committing to seeing these individuals through their full qualification journey. 

For some organisations, it might mean that spending on lawyer training comes under greater internal control, with more bespoke post-onboarding training taking place due to the greater diversity of pathways candidates could have followed prior to recruitment.

How might professional services recruitment change?

For professional services this new legal qualification regime illustrates a growing trend across the regulated professions of increased sensitivity to diversity and inclusion at the entry level. A trend which reflects the fact that regulated professional status brings exclusive rights and concomitant public duties.  

It is unsurprising that professions like doctors, lawyers and accountants often find themselves the focus of government attention, from the Milburn Report on Fair Access to the Professions in 2009, through to the Social Mobility Commission in 2016 and the current so-called levelling up agenda. The consistent refrain is that more needs to be done and in the absence of change, the path is clearer for more public sector intervention and initiatives like the apprenticeship levy.

Regulatory changes to encourage diversity, such as the new SQE route to solicitor qualification, can only go so far in delivering diversity in the professions. A diverse workforce requires the market to demand more diversity and to put its money where its mouth is by adopting diverse and innovative recruitment and training approaches. 

Employers need to be brave enough to stray beyond the traditional pools of academia in which they have fished for talent. HR professionals need to push their organisations to do so.

The journey ahead

We need to recognise that, for all their merits, such approaches are a sticking plaster on the inequality of opportunity that still exists in our society. Yes, the SQE will be better than the current system, but it will remain much, much harder for young people from certain socio-economic or ethnic groups to qualify as solicitors. 

Every secondary school up and down the country should have pupils in it that can realistically aspire to become lawyers, doctors, engineers or vets, regardless of whether they know anyone who is in those professions, and of their financial situation.

Alison Hook is the director at Hook Tangaza

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