The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in 2021 will radically change how people enter the profession. The Law Society says the new two-part exam will drive up standards as well as reduce costs to students, remove barriers to entry and create a more diverse profession. Details of exactly how the SQE is going to work in practice are unclear at this stage but in this blog we’ve set out some thoughts on whether the new ‘super exam’ will meet its goals.
The SRA’s stated aims in introducing the SQE are to provide “a more reliable and rigorous test of competence than is possible at present” and “introduce transparency and competitive pressures to drive up standards and reduce cost”.
In order to achieve this, the qualifying process is being dramatically revamped.
How the SQE will work
Let’s start with a brief overview of what an aspiring solicitor will need to do in order to qualify once the SQE comes in (which is currently expected to be during the autumn of 2021):
1. Students will need to pass both stages of the SQE assessments, SQE1 and SQE2.
SQE1 is a test of legal knowledge and will comprise a series of written, mainly multiple-choice exams, and a written test of legal research and legal writing. It is expected that students will take SQE1 following completion of their university education unless it forms part of their law degree (which we think is likely to be the case in many instances).
SQE2 will test practical legal skills such as client interviewing and giving advice. It is anticipated students will take this exam towards the end of their ‘work experience’ (see below). This means firms will have to release their trainees to prepare for and sit the exam.
2. Students will need to have completed two years of work experience.
This can be completed with up to four employers and some of this can be acquired before a student sits SQE1. Experience gained as an apprentice or paralegal or during holiday work experience could count towards the required experience.
3. A degree or equivalent (in any subject).
4. Satisfaction of the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
There is no requirement to complete a preparatory course before taking SQE1 and SQE2. In theory, someone could take both parts without going on a single course. They could also gain the necessary two-years’ work experience without undergoing a formal training contract, relying instead on a solicitor apprenticeship, placement work or work experience. Would this “drive up standards”?
The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has queried whether the fact that no preparatory course is required will make things harder not easier for some students. Chair Adele Edwin-Lamberton says: “We do not feel that just because the SRA has not specified that a preparatory course is mandatory, that this will prevent students (and firms) seeking a programme of study to assist them in passing the assessment, leaving those unable to afford a course at a disadvantage.” If she is correct, this clearly raises a diversity issue.
Another concern is the fact that not all universities will include SQE1 in their undergraduate law course, meaning some students will have to pay for and prepare for SQE1 after they leave university. Even if it is included, it raises a number of questions: when a university does include SQE1 in its degree course, who will pay for it? Will it be included in the cost of the degree or will it be extra? Will it be compulsory when a degree has it in the syllabus? We presume the answer to this last question is no, as many law students will want to qualify at the Bar rather than as a solicitor.
It has also been pointed out that because the preparatory courses are not mandatory, it will not be possible for students to obtain a professional studies or career development loan to cover the cost. This would seem to raise barriers to entry rather than remove them.
Also, although the SQE exams cover similar areas and topics to those under the current regime, unlike the GDL and LPC, SQE1 does not contain any electives. We believe many of the larger firms will want their trainees to have specialist knowledge of the areas they cover such as corporate finance, banking, etc. They will either have to provide this in house or require their trainees to have attended courses provided by external providers on additional subjects.
This could lead 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.
There are also concerns over the nature of the exams themselves, with Edwin-Lamberton expressing misgivings about the exam format saying she is “not persuaded that the use of multiple choice questions offers a rigorous means of assessment”.
There is little doubt though that the current LLB, GDL and LPC courses need more than a little refresh. Nigel Savage, a former head of the College of Law (now the University of Law), has criticised providers for “peddling versions of the GDL and LPC and very tired LLB programmes that are already 30 years out of date”.
In fairness, the providers themselves have largely welcomed the changes with Pearson Business School vice-principal Ben Hughes saying: “The aims of the SRA in shaking things up so dramatically should be applauded.”
What providers are less happy about is the shortage of information from the SRA about costs, the timing of assessments and the breadth and depth of practice areas.
With so much up in the air it is difficult at this stage to draw firm conclusions about whether the SRA will meet its goals. We will certainly be keeping a close eye on developments as more details become clear.
In the meantime, in our next blog we will attempt to answer some of the key questions being posed by both students and law firms about the new qualification process.