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Balancing ethical standards with common sense; LEGAL FINANCE.

Byline: GUY HINCHLEY

Britain's construction industry, it has been widely reported, is increasingly reliant upon foreign labour.

Immigrant workers from countries such as Poland, Bulgaria and Romania are helping to deliver new buildings around the country as high profile projects such as Heathrow's Terminal 5 and the Olympic village in London eat into the labour pool.

But construction is not the only industry deploying overseas workers. The legal sector too, particularly in London, is increasingly employing lawyers from abroad as recruitment and retention of good lawyers gets harder for some firms, and as English law firms seek to build links abroad.

England's legal profession has always been a magnet for foreign lawyers. It is one of the oldest, and regarded as one of the finest on the planet. The reputation of our firms, and the quality of work they enjoy, is also a massive draw.

Opening up our borders, however, has put the focus on standards. Legal education and practise obviously varies dramatically around the world, so it is vital to ensure that a foreign lawyer intending to practise here has the right skills and qualifications.

This is something that the Solicitors Regulation Authority is seeking to address. As part of a two year review of the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTT), they aim to introduce tough new measures to improve standards.

At present, lawyers from abroad are required to take the QLTT before they can practise in England. The SRA had proposed that from March 1 this year, in addition, they needed to find a placement with a law firm and be supervised for a year before they could qualify.

The move prompted dismay among some firms in London, who claimed it could undermine the city's position in the global legal market, with overseas lawyers heading for New York, for example, where they can simply take an exam and become members of the New York Bar.

Potentially more serious, however, is the challenge from the College of Law, the UK's largest training institution for lawyers. The college, while acknowledging that standards need to be improved, says the plans are potentially in breach of the Race Relations Act and the Competition Act.

The college has protested that while it is comparatively easy for Western lawyers to work in English law, young lawyers from countries such as Nigeria, India or China find it much harder, making the measures anti-competitive and discriminatory against black and ethnic minority groups.

The SRA plans to introduce the measures have now been put on the back burner while it consults the profession further on its proposals. The organisation claims that a poor response to its call for comments prompted the U-turn.

Policing standards within the legal profession is fundamental to maintaining our industry's global reputation. If, as the SRA claims, just three City law firms and a handful of education providers responded to their call for consultation, then that is very disappointing indeed.

The interim measures were intended to be just that - interim - while the SRA conducted a full review of the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Regulations 1990. As more and more of Britain's law firms seek to put diversity at the top of their agenda, let's hope that more of them engage in the process to ensure that the SRA gets this right.

Guy Hinchley is managing partner at the Birmingham office of law firm Mills & Reeve
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 14, 2008
Words:561
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