It is fair to say that the overwhelming response from the legal profession to the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) has been confusion. Neither the firms nor the students (or for that matter the training providers) have a clear idea of how it will operate and what it will mean for the profession (as you can read about in our previous blogs here and here). As we head towards SQE lift-off in 2021, we ask whether there are signs that the fog is clearing?
At the end of last month, Legal Cheek published the first of what we expect will be several SQE surveys aiming to establish law firms’ attitudes toward the new exam. For anyone who has been reading the press surrounding SQE closely, the results won’t come as much of a surprise. In a nutshell, there is no consensus about how firms are going to change their training processes.
When are firms likely to take students on?
Let’s look first at when firms intend taking students on under the new rules.
Thirty-nine percent of firms said they would take on future trainees after completing the first part of the new exam and nine percent said they would do so before they had started SQE at all.
In the latter case, this would mean taking on graduates who had completed either non-law degrees or law degrees that did not cover SQE1 as part of their course. This seems surprising but indicates we may be moving to a qualification process similar to that for accountants where the firm puts the student through the whole process.
Meanwhile, almost a third of firms said they would only take on students after they had completed both parts of the new exam. If this becomes widespread it will go against one of the stated aims of SQE, which is to ensure students don’t waste time and money in passing the exams without any guarantee they will qualify as solicitors.
Twenty-two percent of respondents said they still hadn’t decided when they will take on students. It is possible that this figure under-represents the true position and we would conjecture that many firms polled did not respond to the survey as they still have no clue what they are going to do once SQE comes in.
Will firms provide training that goes beyond SQE?
Another survey question asked whether firms were considering additional training beyond that required by SQE. Sixty-three percent of firms said that they were. In addition, 41% of firms said they were thinking about developing their own SQE course, with 15% saying they might do so as part of a consortium.
These results give credence to our suggestion that we could be heading to a split between “trainees who have benefited from additional training in specialist areas (either in house or on an external course) and those who have simply completed the basic SQE1 and SQE2 requirements”. It is difficult to reconcile this with the SRAs goal of driving up standards and removing barriers to entry. Will we end up with the ‘haves’ who have received additional training beyond SQE (and are therefore more attractive to future employees) and the ‘have nots’, who have had the bare minimum training (making them less attractive)?
Is SQE going to be fit for purpose?
A bigger issue that this alludes to is the extent to which SQE is fit for purpose for the lawyers of the future. As we wrote about recently, AI and technology is changing the profession beyond recognition. This has led many to question whether law firms should rethink their traditional approach of recruiting certain types of students who have typically studied either law or a liberal arts degree.
Dani McCormick, director of solutions at LexisNexis, is quoted as saying that we should change the way we educate lawyers and believes firms must take the lead on this: “We need to teach things like service design and how tech could be applied to firms. In the future the job will be more than simply providing legal advice; it will be advising customers on how they can deploy technology in their legal solutions.”
Clifford Chance is one firm leading the way on this. Its Ignite scheme is taking on five trainees in 2021 and putting them through a programme focusing on legal technology.
In a similar vein, Manchester University has recently launched the UK’s first legal tech module, after developing it with input from law firms. Professor Claire Mcgourlay says of the course: “We aren’t equipping our students to go into the jobs that are becoming available. It’s not about expecting them to learn to code or to be computer science students, but to give them an awareness of what it is they are going to be facing.”
With this in mind, is there a danger that the SQE will be out of date even before it starts rolling out its first graduates?
In fairness to the SRA, it still has two years to get things right. Hopefully, by then the pea-souper around SQE will have lifted to reveal clear blue skies.