The legal profession’s battle to get to grips with the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) shows no sign of abating as we hurtle towards the September 2021 start date. As the key stakeholders try to work out how the new exam will affect them, one major concern is starting to emerge. This is, whether the new exam will lead to a two-tier profession? (For a recap on how SQE will work and its potential pitfalls, you can read our previous SQE blogs here, here and here.)
Let’s start by asking what we mean by a two-tier profession in relation to training.
According to Legal Cheek: “In the elite tier, the theory goes, you’d have City law firm trainees who have been put through expensive, extended SQE-LLM courses; then in second class there’d be the students who do the exam via a combination of cheaper preparatory courses and on-the-job learning.”
If this theory holds true, how will it fit with the SRA’s goals for the SQE? And how is the new exam likely to affect each of the three main stakeholder groups:
- Student lawyers
- Training providers
Recap: The SRA’s goals for the SQE
The SRA’s stated aims for the SQE are to drive up standards, reduce costs for students and remove barriers to entry.
The SRA’s Julie Bannon, who is the architect of the new exam, has said the centrally assessed SQE exam will be harder to pass than the LPC and will improve standards. And, as SQE 2 will be taught on the job, this will reduce training costs and make access to the profession easier.
“There will be a wide range of courses available to students and this will impact cost. The cheapest option is likely to be a law degree with the integrated SQE and that will cost within the £9,000 fee cap which is cheaper than the LPC as it stands,” she says.
Students and junior lawyers
Not everyone agrees with Bannon. The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has been vociferous in raising its concerns about the exam.
Last week, the JLD wrote an open letter to the House of Commons Justice Committee requesting an enquiry into the decision to go ahead with the SQE. The letter says it believes the exam “will lead to a lowering of professional standards which will be detrimental to users of legal services and damage the reputation of the profession”.
Its specific concerns are:
- the removal of the requirement to study academic law and the fact that assessment will be by multiple choice;
- training requiring only “the opportunity” to develop the necessary competencies and sign-off being possible by a newly qualified solicitor who may not ever have met the trainee; and,
- the unresolved question of how much it will cost to qualify, (and whether loans will be available), and concerns about social mobility.
The JLD also wrote an open letter to the SRA last April, warning that the SQE could lead to the exploitation of student lawyers.
In the letter, the JLD focused on the decision to no longer regulate training contracts and training principals. This, it said, could result in junior lawyers being “exploited in unhealthy cultures, work and training environments”. It also claimed the abolition of a minimum trainee salary will be a barrier to entry to the profession for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Law firms face two significant challenges under the SQE. The first is whether their student lawyers should complete the two SQE exams consecutively (as they do now with the GDL or law degree, followed by the LPC) or separately.
Firms are said to be worried about the practicalities of releasing students to study for and sit the SQE2 exams. Questions arise such as when and how much time they would be given? And, what happens if they finish their work experience but fail SQE2?
The SRA recommends students complete SQE1, then do SQE2 after they have completed their qualifying work experience. It wants to avoid the financial gamble that can lead to students paying for and passing their LPC but not gaining the training contract they need to qualify. This has led to a bottleneck in the profession at the trainee stage. Critics say the new exam could result in that bottleneck simply moving to the qualification stage, with a glut of qualified lawyers unable to get jobs.
The second concern for firms is the content of the SQE. The new course lacks elective modules and the larger firms are concerned that their students won’t get the education they require. The result could be courses specifically designed for the bigger firms and it is here that fears of a two-tier system are most acute.
Even the SRA’s Bannon recognises the fact that the profession is likely to divide at this point: “I think we will see a range of different provision emerging,” she says. “At the very top-end there may be gold-plated courses designed for the particular needs of City law firms. These firms recruit up to two years in advance and provide funding so it’s up to them how best to prepare their future trainees.”
“If you think about the sector as a whole, it may well be the case that different law firms have different requirements — it’s no longer one size fits all,” she says.
A similar split is probable during the work experience itself. Students at larger firms are likely to gain focused, hands-on experience designed to help them through SQE2, and get paid time off to study for it. Other, less fortunate, students may have to rely on gaining their two years’ experience by working for up to four firms on more of a paralegal basis, possibly at a low salary, and may need to take unpaid time off or work evenings and weekends to study for SQE2.
The training providers
The training providers come at the SQE from a commercial angle. Their interest is in providing courses that satisfy the SQEs minimum requirements and ones that go beyond these and meet the demands of the larger firms.
The University of Law’s director of business development, Morette Jackson anticipated this when she said: “It all starts with communication and making sure that all our entrants are aware that while doing the bare minimum of preparation courses and different bits of qualifying work experience will get you admitted, you may not be on a par with other candidates who have studied a more comprehensive and structured programme.”
It seems certain that post-SQE there will be a spectrum of qualifying standards in terms of both training and work experience.
This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your vested interest and where you are likely to sit on the spectrum. What is certain is that the SQE will be the subject of much debate in the months ahead. We will be keeping tabs on how the key stakeholders are preparing for the new qualifying process as we head towards the September 2021 start date, so watch this space.