Tim Cheadle (UK) - Outcome-Based Legal Education a Logical Next Step for the Legal Services Sector

The Legal Services Act 2007 provided the impetus for the Solicitors Regulatory Authority’s (SRA) outcomes-based regulation aimed at driving transparency and accountability among legal services providers. It presented the SRA with an opportunity to overhaul and modernise the regulation of the profession. The subsequent Legal Education Training Review (LETR) under discussion today is a step in the same direction. As legal services become commoditised and offered by wide ranging types of legal services providers to protect the interests of customers, it’s important to ensure that professionals have the right skills all round – legal skills will not be the only competencies required to deliver legal services in a liberalised landscape. Proficiency in finance, compliance, ownership, business and customer management will be equally important. These skills are not gained through law degrees. Hence, the LETR endeavours to move away from a wholly prescriptive style of legal education and training to one that is flexible enough to meet the changing needs of the market. It is promoting a distinct change from a role-based approach to an activity-based one.

This said; it is still early days. It is not yet known what new regulation will be implemented by the SRA, the Bar Standards Board and the ILEX Professional Standards in this context – the LETR is expected to report on its recommendations in December 2012, after which these individual regulators will determine which, if any, of the proposals should be executed. However, the drivers of the LETR are valid. If implemented, in whatever measure, there is strong likelihood that technology will play a major role in enabling legal services providers to embrace the spirit of outcome-based legal education, at both organisational and individual levels.

Technology key to law firm management

Law firms are already heavily reliant on technologies such as practice management systems and are now recognising the need for enterprise resource planning solutions, to enable them to operate as profitable businesses. Like any commercial enterprise, law firms will need to be good at collaboration, project management, risk management and financial administration. Technology will provide a single, integrated, legal and non-legal platform from which legal businesses will be run efficiently and safely. For instance, legal services will be delivered by trained lawyers and individuals with little or no formal legal education, but they will be ‘licenced’ to deliver such services. Technology will enable firms to both resource cases with commensurate skills as well as safeguard consumers by ensuring that consumer protection policies are adhered to as a matter of course, in keeping with the SRA’s Code of Conduct. And should things still go wrong due to events outside their control, legal services providers will be in a position to easily provide evidence of the safety measures taken by their organisations, in their own defence, to curtail financial and reputational loss.

Further, technology will enable firms to free up employees’ time from undertaking routine, repetitive tasks (which are no doubt important to delivering legal services), to concentrate on value-generating activities in an increasingly commoditised and competitive legal sector. Automated and standardised processes for document generation, scheduling, and service delivery milestones will help law firms deliver quality services and the best possible client care. These factors will impact legal services providers’ ability to attract and retain customers.

Technology key to professional development

At a professional level, the ability to effectively use technology will open doors for individuals, allowing them to develop transferable legal skills. For instance, typically, professionals get pigeon-holed into being specialists in specific areas of law such as insolvency, insurance, commercial property, and the like. Adept use of technology will enable professionals to leverage opportunities across legal disciplines for career growth.

At a more senior level, the ability to effectively understand and use technology such as enterprise resource planning systems, will enable professionals to develop business acumen through the tremendous insight these systems provide into all aspects of business operation. This kind of business management experience, that comes from running legal practices as commercial enterprises, can potentially open doors for executives in law firms to take on senior positions in organisations such as banks, co-operatives and mainstream enterprises, which is practically unheard of in the legal industry today.

Outcome-based legal education is the logical next step for the legal services sector. It will offer legal services providers unprecedented flexibility in employing, developing and nurturing talent to meet their evolving business objectives as the sector undergoes the current transformation. Technology will provide the support and framework to execute this transformation – be it from a business, operational or human resource standpoint.

By Tim Cheadle, General Manager, LexisNexis Enterprise Solutions


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