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“The public is not confident all solicitors are meeting the same high standards”

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is set to radically overhaul its assessment process for those seeking to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales by introducing a super exam from 2020.

The Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE), which will replace the current Legal Practice Course and the Graduate Diploma in Law, aims to establish a “common approach to assessing solicitors so everyone is assessed against the same high standards in a consistent way”.

Under the plans, all aspiring solicitors will need to pass the SQE, as well as holding a degree or equivalent qualification or experience, complete a two-year period of qualifying work experience, and pass a suitability test.

However, since first mooting the exam reforms in 2015, the SRA has received a backlash of criticism over its plans from parts of the legal industry, including academics, law firms and the Law Society’s Junior Lawyer Division.

Some have raised concerns about the exam reforms’ distinct lack of detail, and academics have warned that the SQE risks dumbing down the current standard of legal training. Meanwhile, others have highlighted concerns over the SQE’s impact on equality and diversity, with the costs to sit the exam still unknown.

In an interview with Thomson Reuters Legal Insights UK & Ireland, Julie Brannan, Director for Education and Training at the SRA, explains the rationale behind the controversial introduction of the SQE.

What will the new Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE) involve, and why is it being introduced?

The main problem with the current system, where you have multiple courses and exams, is that assessments are not transparent and we can’t be sure they are comparable. It’s unclear why pass rates vary across more than 100 law course providers from 50 to 100 percent.

A common approach to assessing solicitors means everyone will be assessed against the same high standards in a consistent way. The evidence shows this is the best way of reassuring everyone that standards in the profession are high.

The SQE will involve two stages of assessment. SQE1 will assess the functional legal knowledge needed for effective practice. It will also include a legal skills assessment. SQE2 will assess the ability to carry out practical legal tasks.

What are the key benefits accruing to lawyers’ clients from these reforms?

The public—nor law firms for that matter—have full confidence that qualifying solicitors are all meeting the same high standards. Almost four out of five people say they would have more confidence in solicitors if they passed the same final exam.

It is hoped the SQE will improve diversity. How will it achieve that?

SQE is about standards reached, not about the way they were attained. It is a rigorous, consistent check to make sure everyone is meeting the same high standard. It enables candidates to train in the way that suits them best. Different routes, such as apprenticeships, attract the most talented candidates from all backgrounds to the profession.

This should enable a more competitive training market to develop, with a wider range of courses available at different price points. Individuals will have more choice to construct their own career paths, both pre and post-qualification.

It will also tackle the problem that many would-be solicitors have to take the Legal Practice Course (LPC) gamble – paying up to £16,000 up front before they know if they have a training contract.

Law firms will benefit from a potential widening of the talent pool, while having a better guarantee of high standards. They can still tailor their training in the way that works best for their trainees and meets their business needs.

How has the SRA acted on the feedback from law firms?

We have heard the views of a broad range of stakeholders, including law firms, engaging extensively with more than 8,800 people over the past 18 months, through 135 events and meetings, and digital activities – resulting in more than 500 responses across both consultations. There is no one voice on this issue – instead opinions are diverse and often conflicting.

The public have backed it—with almost four out of five people supporting a consistent standard. We have already made changes to our proposals in response to feedback. There was a clear message that people still think there is more work to do on the detail. We agree and are committed to working very closely with the sector to get the detail right.

We agreed with the majority of respondents that a two-year period of qualifying work experience is the right approach and have implemented this as a requirement.

We have heard peoples’ concerns about our initial timetable, so we have pushed back our target launch to October 2020. This gives us all time to get the detail right and allow everyone to prepare.

This builds on changes we have already made to our proposals, such as the commitment to including the need for a degree or equivalent to qualify.

So, we will make sure that the design, testing and delivery of the SQE will be a rigorous process, where we work closely alongside all those—from academics to law firms—who have the expertise to help us get this right.

Analysis: The future of legal education and training: where’s the problem and will the SQE fix it?

Legal educators are generally against the SQE, claiming that it will dumb down the current standard of legal training solicitors have to undertake. How would you respond to this criticism?

Our engagement involved direct conversations with about 80 universities during the development of the SQE—two thirds of all law course providers.

As stated, we cannot be sure of the quality of legal training in the current system because it is dispersed over a wide number of providers who set and mark their own assessments.

The SQE will assure standards more rigorously than is possible in the current system. The SQE assesses the skills, competences and legal knowledge specified in the Competence Statement for Solicitors and the Statement of Legal Knowledge which accompanies it. These must be assessed to the standard specified in our Threshold Standard. These documents were widely welcomed when we consulted on them. They specify what a solicitor needs to know and be able to do far more precisely than in the current system.

We will publish SQE pass rates by training provider, allowing us to hold universities to account for the quality of their training and give candidates objective information about where they choose to train.

So, it does not dumb down, and it also provides a far greater degree of transparency than the current system, which will give training providers the incentive to improve the quality of their training.

We know that people are often cautious about change, but we will be working with providers to ensure that the transition works well for them. Many legal educators are already looking at the opportunities the SQE will open up for them.

While law degree and LPC courses vary, their content is mandated by the SRA. The training contract phase is opaque. If you are concerned about standards, why not address that phase of the qualification route, rather than the education stage?

We exercise only limited oversight of the Qualifying Law Degree in the current system. For example, we specify only the general legal topics to be included, such as contract, tort, land law, and not what should be included in those topics.

This is critically important knowledge for solicitors to have. It is therefore appropriate for us to specify it in detail and assess it along with procedural subjects such as civil litigation and conveyancing.

Many feel the exam reforms are a missed opportunity to introduce skills that lawyers will need in the future to succeed in the changing working environment. Would it not be better to create a model that is sufficiently flexible to reflect the requirements of practice as they change?

We could have created a huge SQE which assessed an enormous range of skills and knowledge. But that would have been unmanageable, inflexible and very, very expensive for candidates.

So, the SQE assesses only the core skills and knowledge that all solicitors need to have. It is focused on the reserved activities, which are those practice areas that only solicitors, and other authorised individuals, are permitted by statute to undertake.

Under SQE, firms and universities will be free to work together to create new, innovative courses in specialist areas, or which suit the firms’ needs, free from regulatory interference.

Were we, for example, to require everyone to pass an assessment of their legal technology competences, it couldn’t keep pace with market developments. No sooner than we had designed the assessment, it would be out of date.

Analysis: The future of legal education and training: where’s the problem and will the SQE fix it?

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