The proposed Solicitors Qualifying Exam (“SQE”) is intended to be introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (“SRA”) in 2020. Its supporters say it will standardise the route through to qualification as a solicitor, notably eradicating the variances between LPC and GDL courses and their providers. It has been suggested that it will also reduce the cost of entry into the profession thus increasing accessibility and social mobility. Laudable though these claims are, the SQE has already faced much criticism from leading members of the profession. Will the solicitors super exam really deliver on its promises or does it simply represent pointless meddling by the SRA and what impact will it have on legal recruitment in Manchester and beyond?
A need to standardise the qualification process
Currently, in order to qualify as a solicitor, a candidate in England and Wales has a number of options available:
- Traditional route – involving a university law degree and the LPC; or a non-law degree, GDL/CPE followed by the LPC. Whether the candidate graduates with a law degree or non-law degree, they must also complete two years of recognised training (training contract);
- Equivalent training – involving training as a paralegal and taking the LPC;
- Legal Executive route – involving CILEX training plus taking the LPC; or
- Legal Apprenticeship – since 2016 a number of legal apprenticeships have become available giving candidates the opportunity to qualify with more of a focus on on-the-job training.
Though these various pathways to qualification have increased choice and flexibility, it has been submitted that it has become more and more difficult to ensure that everyone entering the profession is of the same standard of competence and professionalism.
In particular, one of the main gripes has been with the LPC and GDL as well as its numerous providers. Many critics of the current system of academic training cite fluctuating standards on the LPC and GDL as well as significant differences in pass mark, not-to-mention cost. This, in turn, the SRA contends results in a training environment where consistency is difficult to police and where standards of service among qualified solicitors vary significantly.
One of the fundamental tenets of the SQE is that it will ensure all qualified solicitors attain the same standard as expected by clients. Whatever the route, the two-stage assessment will act as an important regulatory tool, insisting that all hopeful solicitors must achieve the same high standard in order to be admitted.
The SRA argues that what is needed is one common exam designed to ensure that all those looking to become qualified solicitors much reach the same level of competence. It has also claimed by Julie Brannan, Director of Education at Training at the SRA that the new gateway assessment is likely to be cheaper than the current LPC/GDL training process. This, in turn will hopefully remove certain financial barriers to entry into the profession and possibly encourage greater diversity.
Such proposals could have a major impact on legal recruitment. The market for legal jobs in Manchester and throughout the UK has never been more fraught. Yet, still solicitors are recruited for law jobs from a surprisingly small talent pool of candidates, the majority of whom have followed the same legal path. Could the SQE address the anomalies of the current training regime and open up the legal market to those candidates who have previously experienced problems gaining access to the profession?
What training might look like under the SQE
The SQE is structured as a two-stage exam, which is assessed on a simple pass / fail basis. The first stage is more academic in nature and requires the candidate to demonstrate knowledge of the law and the ability to apply it effectively. The second stage is designed to furnish candidates with more practical skills for legal practice, such as interviewing, advocacy, drafting and legal research. If the SQE were to be implemented in its current guise, it would mean that in order to qualify as a solicitor, a candidate must:
- Obtain a degree or equivalent (it is not yet clear what ‘equivalent’ means in this context);
- Pass stages 1 and 2 of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination;
- Complete a minimum period of work place experience; and
- Satisfy the character and suitability requirements of the SRA
Candidates would no longer be required to pass the LPC or GDL and both courses will likely be phased out completely.
A return to the old Law Society finals?
Those old enough to recall, may argue that the SQE represents a return to the old system of Law Society finals, which all candidates had to pass in order to qualify. However, the SQE is far more comprehensive in its coverage.
The SQE in more detail
As mentioned above, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination will be a two-stage assessment:
Stage 1 – academic element
This will be a computer-based assessment testing candidates’ knowledge and application of the law. The areas covered will include:
- Ethics and professional conduct;
- Wills and probate;
- Business Law and Practice;
- Trusts and Equity;
- Contract Law
- Criminal Law and Evidence;
- Constitutional Law;
- EU Law; and
- Human Rights
Stage 2 – practical element
The second stage of the SQE will focus on practical skills aimed at preparing the candidate for legal practice. This will include training and assessment in areas such as:
- Negotiation; and
- Drafting and legal research
Positives and negatives of the SQE – the arguments
- Standardisation and regulation of the training process
One of the main arguments behind the SQE is that it will standardise legal training to the extent that all candidates (at the point of admission, at least) will be brought up to the same standard. This common exam will eradicate the alleged disparities and varying levels of competence which exist within the various training routes of the legal profession. Notably it will remove the requirement to pass the LPC and GDL thus dealing with the supposition that there is far too much variation between the numerous different courses.
However, it is exactly this process of standardisation which has prompted criticism from leading members of the profession. Some City law firms in particular are against a training program which would prevent them from tailoring courses to their particular needs. Large law firms have developed bespoke LPC courses and modules, which cater specifically for their trainee intake and prepare them for the work they will encounter. The proposed Solicitors Qualifying Exam makes no apparent provision for this.
As many law firms sponsor their trainees through their post graduate academic training, and therefore would be footing the bill for the SQE, it seems likely that the SRA will face significant pressure for the SQE to be modified according to their areas of practice. Furthermore, it could be suggested that the SQE is of little relevance to boutique law firms who specialise in certain key areas of the law.
One possible remedy is that other courses and modules will develop around the SQE to tailor a given candidate’s training to a particular need or discipline. This would perhaps offer the larger regional and City firms a range of more focused courses, developed in relation to their requirements. The counter argument is the development of such courses would simply add, once again to the complexity and cost of the training process.
This point is more difficult to explore as the SRA have yet to give any detailed indication of what the two stages of the SQE may cost. Under the current system, there is no doubt that fees for the LPC and GDL vary hugely from provider to provider with some charging in excess of £15,000. The risk of completing such a course and then failing to secure a training contract is a very real concern for some candidates.
The computer-based nature of Stage 1 of the SQE could certainly reduce cost significantly. Furthermore, candidates who fail Stage 1 would not then have to commit to Stage 2 thus limiting their financial exposure. That said, those who have to pay their way through Stages 1 and 2 will still have to face a significant financial burden. More detail is needed from the SRA before a proper assessment can be made.
- Accessibility to the legal profession
The SRA has observed that the legal profession is still dominated by candidates who have gone through the more traditional route of obtaining a university degree, before completing the LPC. The cost and complexity of training no doubt limits access to the legal profession for candidates coming from ethnic minorities or for those who do not have the necessary financial backing. It is still the perception that candidates emerging from the top universities such as Oxbridge or the institutions which make up the Russell Group and who tread the traditional path of law school and a training contract are somehow perceived to make better lawyers. The SQE is seen, in some part, as an attempt to adjust this perception and level the playing field for candidates who do not choose the traditional route. All candidates who pass the SQE will be regarded in the same light, no matter which pathway they have chosen.
With respect, although the SQE might go some way in redressing the balance it is unlikely to cause a seismic shift in the recruitment behaviour of law firms especially the larger top and mid-tier firms. Speaking as someone who works for a legal recruitment company in Manchester, the competition for legal jobs in Manchester and in the North West has never been more fierce.
Legal recruiters, heads of HR and Recruitment Partners look at every aspect of an application including a consistently strong academic performance even down to one’s GCSEs and A Levels. The suggestion that the SQE will act as some sort of ‘leveller’ is rather unlikely.
City firms and regional practices largely recruit candidates whilst still at university, long before the commencement of any form of post graduate training. This is not to say that the proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination will have no effect at all. A standardised SQE may well open up the legal profession to talented candidates who are looking for a career change and this should be welcomed. But to suggest it will address the fundamental attitudes and perceptions of those who make the decisions about recruitment is rather too hopeful.
The fact of the matter is that more detail is needed before any real assessments can be made. That said, although there are some who criticise the move it should be observed that where there is change there is opportunity. The introduction of the SQE in 2020 is likely to foster the development of new courses and training packages and shake up a system which is certainly in need of some change. Whilst it is far too early to know the exact form that future legal training will take, the new super exam could certainly take us in a fresh and exciting direction.