So, it’s finally happened. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have confirmed that as of 2020, there will be a so-called ‘Super Exam’ as an entry to the legal profession and to qualify as a solicitor. This will be aptly known as the ‘Solicitors Qualification Exam’ (SQE). So first and foremost, what does this mean?
Under the scheme, prospective lawyers will sit a two-part exam as well as undertaking work experience. To qualify as a solicitor, candidates will need to:
• Have passed SQE stages 1 and 2. The first stage will test a candidate’s ability to use and apply legal knowledge and the second stage will test legal 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
• Meet the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
So why change the current system of qualification? There has been many discussions but the main reasons for the SQE being proposed in the first place were:
• Despite the fact that there are over 5,000 law firms that are authorised to provide training contracts, there are only 2,500 trainees on average each year
• There are no clear guidelines on whether or not a particular individual is competent enough to qualify once they have reached the end of their training contract
• The c.£15,000 ‘access fee’ for undertaking the LPC with no guarantee of a training contract is often a barrier to entry into the profession.
So naturally this new system can only mean good things, right? Wrong! …. these changes are not seen as good news by many of the legal profession.
Surveys have shown that back in October 2016 during the consultation, there were extremely mixed views as to whether the proposals should go ahead. The majority of legal professionals voted against the reforms. However the SRA only responded by ploughing ahead regardless stating that “popularity has never been the objective of a regulator”. It did delay the SQE implementation, but only made relatively small amendments to its plans.
One of the most obvious positives is the abolition of a requirement to have completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC) before applying to a law firm. As someone that has been down this path personally, I cannot praise this move enough. Whilst the course itself is a great introduction to practising in the legal profession (certainly from a procedural perspective), the cost of it is an immense barrier to many people. The current course costs in the region of £15,000, which not only is a lot of money, but it also holds no guarantee of a training contract at the end of it. Let’s face it, whilst the LPC can open some doors for Paralegal roles, the only reason you would ever throw that much money at further training, is if you are aiming to secure a training contract and intending to qualify as a solicitor. The latest figures show that less than 50% of LPC graduates actually secure a training contract, leaving a lot of people with a lot of debt without any return. Having said this however, who knows the cost of the SQE? The general consensus is that this will still be substantially cheaper to undertake, but this is not set in stone just yet.
A shake-up in the route to qualification in my view can only be a positive thing. The vast expense associated with undertaking the LPC upfront before typically securing a legal role has been unjustifiable and unsustainable for some time.
The new route will typically require aspiring solicitors to complete the SQE stage 1 before undertaking their period of work experience. They can then gain the required work experience and competences through a variety of hopefully more easily available routes including:
• Under a formal training contract.
• Through working in a student law clinic.
• As an apprentice or a paralegal.
• Through a placement as part of a sandwich degree.
And importantly these can be done before undertaking their final examination – the SQE stage 2.
They can sandwich their work experience with their SQE exams.*
In this time of big changes and development to the legal progression, this was an expected update to the training regime. It looks to increase equal opportunities and diversity in the profession but it may take time to convince some law firms and many academics that this is new system is a move in the right direction. As ever time will tell…..
Paul Shephard is an experienced Associate in Chadwick Nott’s Birmingham office advising both solicitors and paralegals in the Midlands region. He can be contacted on email@example.com and 0121 200 5573.
*For full details of the SQE please refer to the SRA website:-https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/consultations/solicitors-qualifying-examination.page