How can we best prepare the next generation of lawyers for successful and fulfilling careers in practice?

The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has created innovative and exciting opportunities for training providers and law firms to consider how to instil the skills, behaviours, and knowledge that future lawyers should possess.

The new centralised assessments will be challenging, testing candidates on their knowledge of all the foundational principles of academic law and of core practice.  Aside from rigorous knowledge and understanding of the law, aspiring legal professionals will also be required to pass an assessment of practical legal skills, including advocacy, client interviewing, case and matter analysis, legal research, legal writing, and legal drafting.

Whilst the SQE focuses on this critical yet narrow set of practical legal skills, employers are conscious of the gap between the skills assessed as part of the SQE and the broader skills and attributes that are required in the workplace.  The legal sector and the way in which legal services are delivered is changing, and clients have different expectations and needs from the lawyers that they work with. BPP has carried out extensive research through our links with the UK’s leading law firms and the wider legal profession, to find out what are the key skills needed to succeed in practice, and how we can help aspiring solicitors develop those skills.

What is the skills gap?

A successful solicitor is one that truly understands the needs of their clients, can work with them to find innovative and effective solutions to problems and communicate those solutions clearly. In addition to those skills assessed as part of the SQE, it is crucial that those wishing to qualify as a solicitor develop core skills and knowledge such as:

Collaborative working.

Teamwork, using emotional intelligence and acumen to build and maintain strong relationships with clients, stakeholders and colleagues is critical. Solicitors must be able to collaborate in cross-disciplinary teams and projects, and work effectively with people of diverse skillsets, competencies, and viewpoints.

Creativity and adaptability.

Keeping an open mind, understanding how to think outside of the box, challenge the way things are done and apply creative thinking to improve the ways in which legal services are delivered.

Reflection.

Being able to reflect upon and evaluate past experiences, listen and take on board feedback, and use that growth mindset to continually develop and improve.

Digital competencies.

The ability to navigate and take advantage of a range of digital tools in a world that increasingly relies on technology for effective and efficient business practice.

The work of the O Shaped Lawyer group has highlighted that these skills, and others, are demanded by clients of law firms. Now more than ever, law firms are looking for candidates who understand these skills and behaviours while being able to apply them in practice.

We asked law firm Travers Smith why it is important for their junior lawyers to develop a wide range of skills and competencies.  Senior Learning and Development Manager Rachel Wevill told us: “We have always believed that there is more to being a lawyer than knowing the relevant law and how to apply it (although of course that is an essential start).  There are many reasons why lawyers need more than knowledge: to look after themselves in what is an exciting but demanding career, to optimise collaboration with colleagues and fellow advisors at all levels of seniority, to delight clients with a service that provides so much more than just documents and advice.” It is therefore essential that legal trainees develop such skills in order to succeed in practice. Despite the demand for these skills, not all these competencies are assessed or covered in the SQE. And where these additional skills are covered, it is important not to treat them as an optional extra, but as a fundamental and integral part of how lawyers interact with their clients and deliver legal services.

How can the skills gap be bridged?

As before, employers will ensure that their junior lawyers will have the opportunity to develop these competencies within the workplace through their Qualifying Work Experience (QWE – the replacement for the Period of Recognised Training or Training Contract). Increasingly, law firms are also looking to legal training providers to lay the foundation for these wider set of skills and attributes.

Through extensive research and collaboration with clients and partners in the legal sector, BPP University’s Law School has designed a range of programmes that allow students to build and strengthen core skills and behaviours whilst preparing for the SQE assessments.

Students engage in experiential tasks that utilise client case studies within a virtual law firm, encouraging them to reflect and practice skills in the context of real-world scenarios, in an environment that simulates life in practice.

They experience collaboration through live workshops, giving and receiving constructive peer-to-peer feedback, sharing ideas and perspective, and using collaborative digital tools to deepen understanding and find innovative solutions to client issues.

Innovative assessment strategies incorporate professional portfolios and reflective statements to encourage students to critically evaluate how they have been developing a range of skills and their plans for improvement.

Aspiring lawyers can also benefit from BPP’s award-winning pro bono centre to help them gain unique legal experience, as well as the opportunity to enhance these essential skills in order to further boost their employability and prepare for career success.

Building key skills through practical experience. 

Whilst many firms will decide that their future trainees must have foundational level knowledge and skills before they start their QWE, the introduction of SQE opens up new and more flexible routes to qualification for those who wish to study alongside working. Both paralegal and solicitor apprenticeships have grown exponentially since the introduction of the trailblazer programmes in 2016, and we will see a further increase as more apprenticeships are introduced for graduate level talent. These apprenticeships present a valuable opportunity for employers to shape and develop their junior lawyers whilst attracting more diverse talent into the legal profession.  Apprentices develop key skills and competencies in the workplace, gaining practical and hands-on experience from an early stage in their careers. They combine this development of skills with academic learning and preparation for the centralised assessments, all while earning a salary.

Those who choose to opt for an apprenticeship programme and law firms who hire apprentices will see this skills gap close through this invaluable hands-on experience.

Preparing for practice.

The launch of the SQE in September 2021 isn’t just a huge shakeup of training in the legal industry, it also has potential to change the makeup of the profession in the future. Legal education providers and employers have a responsibility for the development of the next generation of legal professionals and an opportunity to readdress how we prepare those aspiring lawyers for a successful and fulfilling career.  As Rachel Wevill told us, “The SQE has provided an opportunity to shift the emphasis from learning skills to living them: a great preparation for life in practice. “

It is critical that education providers continue to drive the highest standards of education to ensure that aspiring lawyers are not only best prepared for the challenging set of assessments, but also to embed the business and personal skills that they will need for practice. While this will allow law firms to attract the very best in future legal talent, it also delivers trust and confidence for the clients and businesses they may advise in the future.