What does the future route to qualifying look like for aspiring solicitors?
Earlier this year The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) confirmed it will be scrapping legal education and solicitor qualification as we know it.
The Legal Practice Course (LPC) and the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), are both set to be scrapped as early as September 2020. In their place, the regulator will soon be rolling out an independent, centralised assessment, named as the solicitor super-exam (SQE).
But what was the problem that led the SRA to bring about this change in the first place? The LPC can cost up to £16,000, and around 9,000 people complete it every year although there are only around 5,500 training contracts available. Will the changes address this? Experts are divided.
The SRA believes the super-exam will be cheaper for aspiring lawyers and will end what it calls the “LPC gamble”. This is where aspiring solicitors are forced to pay large, up-front costs “with no guarantee of a training contract”. Whilst the SRA believes the SQE will help reduce the training contract bottleneck, Bryan Scant, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division, raises concerns about securing employment once qualified “The proposals are drastic and may not necessarily achieve the desired result as the previous training contract bottleneck will now move to a newly qualified (NQ) bottleneck where you have a lot of NQ’s with not enough jobs,”
Will the SQE route prove more cost effective to aspiring solicitors?
Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA, says the SRA “worries about the cost” of the current model, especially when GDL and LPC fees are often added to existing student debt. She says the SQE will allow students to save money by integrating LPC subjects into their law degree. It will include a practical element, which will enable trainees to fund themselves through work in the profession – say, as a paralegal.
Scant questions whether this will work in reality. “The SRA hasn’t said how much the fees for the [final] exams will be. They clearly expect people to save and pay for it themselves, which is not always possible if you have course fees to repay or are working in a firm that is unable to fund the exams. This will not increase social mobility,” he says.
The JLD has also raised concerns regarding potential lending streams. “At present, as the LPC is compulsory to qualify as a solicitor, banks offer specialist loans to assist students. If the preparatory course will not be compulsory, the JLD is concerned that these loans will be unavailable to students, and only those with sufficient financial means will be able to qualify as a solicitor.”
The purpose of the new exam
According to the SRA, one of the aims of the new exam is to make sure that all solicitors meet the same professional standards. “We currently have more than 100 universities doing law degrees and lots doing the GDL – and they have completely different exams,” says Brannan. “We are proposing a common exam with a common standard and we think that will give confidence that we, as a regulator, have checked the competence of people who have qualified.”
The new model is also designed to broaden access and ensure that talent and work ethic, not background, define success. Different routes to qualification, such as apprenticeships, are already welcome in helping attract candidates from all backgrounds into the profession. But the SQE wants to challenge the perception that some routes are more valid than others. “We know that there are some employers who think apprenticeships are not as good as the traditional graduate route. This new test will enable people to show that they are equal,” says Brannan”.
How will the super-exam work?
Though substantive details on the SQE are still thin of the ground, the SRA has proposed what it calls “a possible structure” of the new exam.
The new way of qualifying as a solicitor will be in place by 2020, and will have two stages of skills and legal knowledge assessments. In order to qualify as a solicitor, candidates will need to:
- Have passed SQE stages 1 and 2 to demonstrate they have the right knowledge and skills
- Have been awarded a degree or an equivalent qualification, or have gained equivalent experience
- Have completed at least two years of qualifying legal work experience
- Be of satisfactory character and suitability
The first stage of the SQE will involve six functioning legal knowledge assessments and one practical legal skills assessment. The SRA anticipates this will be the cheaper part of the exam, and can be taken before the required period of work experience. It also anticipates that some universities will reshape their law degrees to incorporate teaching that will enable students to pass part one. “We are already seeing many universities kick-starting a curriculum review,” said Brannan.
The second part of the SQE would be taken on the point of qualification and will involve two sessions of five practical legal skills assessments, which include client interviewing, advocacy and persuasive oral communication, case and matter analysis and legal research. The current requirement for students to experience both a contentious and a non-contentious area of law during their period of work experience will also vanish, though the exam will test them on both.
The SRA also plans to introduce more flexibility in defining what a training contract actually is; paralegal work, work in a university’s law office and more could soon count towards your solicitor training. Indeed, under the new regime the term ‘training contract’ won’t be used, with the SRA asking instead for “two years of qualifying legal work experience”.
Both law degree and non-law degree holders will be able to sit the exam. It will also be possible for aspiring solicitors going through the apprenticeship route to qualification to sit it too.