Time to remove one of Britain’s great glass ceilingsby Dominic Raab / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Many people dream of a career in one of the professions, but struggle to fund those aspirations. In a 2012 report for the government, Alan Milburn estimated that the professions would account for 83 per cent of new jobs in Britain in the next decade. But, he argued: “Across the professions as a whole, the glass ceiling has been scratched but not broken,” adding “the graduate grip on the labour market is still strong.”
Take law. The development of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) has allowed over 20,000 qualified legal executives to enter the profession, mostly via a non-graduate route. Legal executives often specialise in areas such as conveyancing, family law, probate and litigation. Training is typically spread over five years of combined study and work. For the trainee, it costs around £7,000 for the first four years (while he or she is earning), compared to over £20,000 for pursuing a degree first. Over 80 per cent of CILEX members have parents who did not go to university. Just 2 per cent have a parent who was a lawyer. Half said the cost of the graduate route would have deterred them from becoming lawyers.
Yet, there remain glass ceilings. Much of the work legal executives do has to be supervised by a solicitor, irrespective of the experience or ability of the individual. In practice, this is a major disincentive to legal executives setting up their own high street practices. Even when they can do the work, they are still tied to solicitors.
This makes little sense. The restriction limits the aspirations of legal executives, and checks their ability to compete with solicitors on a level playing field. CILEX is applying to the Legal Services Board for independent practice rights, which would enable legal executives to break into this new territory. Subject to meeting the criteria to ensure proper regulatory supervision, the application should be approved.
Likewise, BPP Law School is seeking regulatory approval to set up a work-based legal apprenticeship that can lead to full qualification as a solicitor—without a degree—within five years. Various high profile law firms have expressed an interest.
Extending non-graduate access to the legal profession would also yield economic benefits, by expanding competition and promoting innovation. Legal fees have risen above inflation for the past five years. Many people are dispensing with unaffordable legal advice. On one estimate, one in five consumers foregoes necessary legal advice. Over half cited cost as the reason. The current regulatory barriers to becoming a solicitor, or setting up an independent firm as a legal executive, stifle the provision of high street legal services like probate and conveyancing at more competitive rates.
Government should back these initiatives. Breaking these glass ceilings would reduce legal costs, expand consumer choice, cost the taxpayer nothing—and help pioneer non-graduate access into the professions.