The proposed introduction of the Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE) has been controversial. Academics tend to be opposed to it, with law firms often either indifferent or reserving judgment. In a recent interview with Thomson Reuters Legal Insights, Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), highlighted some important questions about the reforms.
Quality and diversity as drivers of change
The SQE aims to promote diversity in the profession by removing the law firm’s role as gatekeeper to qualification, promoting diversity and setting a universal quality standard for new solicitors. Will it achieve this outcome?
More people want to be solicitors than there are training contracts available. There were 5,720 training contracts registered in 2017 and 2016. In 2015/16, 6,938 students passed the Legal Practice Course (LPC), leaving 18 percent without a training contract. The wastage is worse when you consider that 11,496 enrolled on the LPC that year.
Under the SRA’s plans, would-be lawyers who don’t get formal traineeships (which are likely to continue in parallel to the new system) can still pursue their dream by completing a cumulative total of two years’ qualifying work experience. This flexibility should promote diversity, especially among those for whom the cost of the LPC is prohibitive on top of a three-year degree course. But many fear the new system will be no cheaper—or, if it is, it will create a two-tier system where the lucky ones, sponsored by firms or with the means to pay, will receive a course that prepares them for the SQE, plus additional training in subjects which fall outside the SQE. While others will take the cheapest route to passing the exam and therefore perform worse or be perceived as less qualified.
According to Dr Jess Guth, Chair of the Association of Law Teachers, the SQE could in actuality have a negative impact on diversity. “There is no evidence the SQE route will in fact be cheaper, it does not take into account the ghettoisation of the profession and the widening split between Magic Circle and high street. The SQE will be a disaster for students from non-privileged backgrounds without the social capital to navigate the field”.
The SRA is aware of this risk and legal education providers are working to find solutions to address these issues while keeping costs as low as possible before the SQE goes live in 2020.
It is likely that part of the solution will be more blended and personalised courses to fit individuals’ and individual law firms’ requirements. Not least because the SQE does not cover all areas.
However, there are still concerns over what the SQE will entail and how it will be implemented into the market. “Smaller firms have noticed that the new SQE 1 does not cover family and employment law. Furthermore, there remain more unanswered questions, including how much the new exams will cost and whether employers will prefer their employees to take the new route to qualification when it is first introduced to the market”, says Caroline Strevens, Head of Portsmouth University Law School.
“The culture change that law schools need to embrace is enormous, there is a huge difference in technique between preparing students for a test of competence as opposed to a GDL/LPC, says Professor Nigel Savage, Director at Savage Hutchinson Consulting and former President of the University of Law.
While the SQE presents risks, its limits also offer opportunities. For example, given the packed LPC programme, some LPC providers, welcome the SQE as enabling more flexibility in their provision.
Is there a quality problem and, if so, where does it lie?
The SRA points out that entry requirements to degree courses vary, as do pass marks. So, there is no way of knowing who is the better candidate. But anyone employing a would-be solicitor will look at their grades, the university and law school they attended, as well as a myriad of other factors. There is no evidence that law firms struggle to identify the best candidates for training contracts because they can’t tell which courses are the most rigorous.
As Dr Guth says, “all degrees have to meet the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s benchmark statements and there are rigorous external examiner systems in place”. The SRA is already responsible for setting the content of the LPC and many law firms also collaborate with law schools on the design of their courses.
That said, an independently administered exam feels right in theory. But is this the best way of guaranteeing quality and diversity or do other factors need to be considered?
Firstly, the bulk of a lawyer’s learning takes place on the job. With more than 2,000 placements offering training contracts at law firms, and a huge diversity of supervision and experience, this is more of a blind spot than the academic stage of qualification.
Secondly, absent a requirement to undertake a formal training contract, the difference in the training lawyers receive will be even wider. Professor Savage adds that “it would make sense to mitigate the risks inherent in such an initiative by running pilots; allowing candidates from different sectors to take the test and be permitted to proceed to the work placement”.
What about legal tech skills?
As Julie Brannan explained, it would be unaffordable and impractical for the SQE to test skills beyond the core competencies to carry out reserved activities. It will be for educators and employers to ensure that legal education and training reflect the changing needs of a profession that, in the last two years, has embraced the opportunities offered by technology to improve and broaden the provision of legal services.
“Firms need to reflect on their strategic plans and begin to streamline the whole process of education and training”, says Savage. They also need to take a closer look at the so-called training contract and use technology to integrate a greater proportion of learning into the workplace. There are pockets of innovation, but not enough”.
Just as the legal services market is becoming more diverse, legal education and training will also welcome new entrants to the market, or existing providers with new and exciting courses and products to support law firms and legal teams.
“England and Wales is a large professional legal education market, so there is much potential for new investment and new providers from Australia and the US who are well used to delivering on scale and online. Given the strategic changes that have taken place in the publishing sector over recent years—in terms of horizontal growth and delivering solutions for their clients—they have a unique opportunity to contribute and provide what firms and students need as part of a wider contribution to law firm growth”.
By Kirsten Maslen, Head of Small Law and Academic at Thomson Reuters Legal UK and Ireland.