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Legal education: how will the SQE affect the market?

Kirsten Maslen

27 Apr 2017

On Tuesday, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced it would proceed with its controversial plans to introduce a Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) to replace the  Legal Practice Course (LPC).

The plans are controversial because, unlike now, aspiring solicitors would not be obliged to complete any academic or practical legal course to qualify. In theory anyone with a degree or equivalent, whether or not in law, (at first the plans suggested not even a degree was required) could sit the exam.

The exam is in two parts:

  • The first combines both the theoretical and practical application of the law in certain key areas.
  • The second, which would be completed after a period of worked based training (which may be like the current training contract but could also be work as a paralegal or in a law clinic) tests legal skills such as interviewing and drafting etc.

However, the final details of each stage are to be determined.

The response to the proposals has been largely negative, especially from legal educators who fear a dumbing down of standards, and are reacting against the assumption behind these proposals that their courses are not fit for purpose for those aiming to practise law. (See the SRA’s SQE consultation page for the rationale behind the proposals and for a summary of responses.)

The implementation date for the proposals has shifted over the consultation period and is now at Sept 2020.

What this means for legal educators

 The introduction of the SQE will have a profound effect on the market for legal education. In the next three years, we are likely to see:

  • A fragmentation of the provision with institutions offering courses which roll in preparation for the exam to degree and post-graduate courses.
  • An increase in courses including opportunities for work experience which counts as part of the two year mandatory qualifying work experience.

These changes bring both risks and opportunities to legal educators.

 Law schools offering the LPC

Law schools are likely to offer new courses, such as:

  • A preparatory course for the SQE on top of a law degree/ GDL equivalent. (As it would need to revise the academic and cover the practical application of the law, as well as meet the sponsoring law firms’ requirements, this is unlikely be cheaper than the current LPC. Indeed, there may be more than one version of this course- leading to fears of a two-tier system with sponsoring firms opting for a “gold-plated” course.)
  • A single course which teaches to the SQE (at degree or equivalent level) as an alternative to the law degree plus SQE preparatory course.
  • Supplementary courses for students coming from universities which have gone some way to include preparation for the SQE in their law degrees.

However, there are risks, for example:

  • Replacement courses may not compensate for loss of LPC revenue.
  • Competition from crammer colleges or self-teaching options.
  • New offerings may not sufficiently align with new offerings from undergraduate institutions and so fail to provide cost-effective options for students.

Law schools will need demonstrate the value of their courses and are likely to offer an array of courses at different price points. This could include offering more work-based training, which counts as part of the mandatory qualifying period of work experience, wrapped up in the course.

Universities (not offering the LPC)

Some universities may choose to maintain the status quo. Their options are to offer:

  • Law degrees as now.
  • Law degrees including some or all of the preparation for the SQE. This is likely to mean extending the length of the study period, or changing and reducing the range of subjects taught.

They also face risks as well as opportunities, for example, if:

  • They fail to demonstrate the continued value of the law degree over other degrees or combined courses.
  • Revised courses which include some SQE preparation fail to result in a reduction in subsequent law school or other fees associated with further SQE prep, if required.

If they do enter the market for courses preparing students for the SQE, barriers to entry are high- many legal educators have never practised law. Preparation for SQE 1 will require both knowledge of the law and its practical application. That said, many universities already include practice-based training and problem-based learning in their courses, which will give them a head-start.

How does this course prepare lawyers for the future?

This is a big question. The SQE is narrower in scope than the current system of qualifying law degree with LPC. And some law schools and universities are doing fantastic work in developing their students’ technological and business skills. As institutions grapple with designing courses that adequately prepare students to sit the SQE, it will be a challenge to ensure students continue to have a well-rounded legal education as well as the necessary skills to succeed in the new legal marketplace.

 

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