Two of the SRA’s aims for the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) are to create a more diverse profession and drive up standards. In this blog, we examine whether the SRA will succeed in its quest or whether it will have the opposite effect as some critics are predicting.
The legal profession has a diversity problem. A report published by the SRA in 2017 found that partnerships remain dominated by white males. “Females, and BAME females especially, appear disadvantaged when it comes to career progression in the solicitors’ profession,” it said.
A strong, diverse profession
The new SQE examination forms part of the SRA’s commitment to creating a strong, diverse and effective profession reflecting the communities it serves, however, many in the profession doubt the SQE will help the SRA meet this goal.
A “devastating effect” on individuals?
The junior lawyers division (JLD) of the Law Society has been vociferous in its criticism of the new exam. Its chair, Amy Clowry, believes the cost of taking the exam of around £3,000 to £4,500 will have “a negative social mobility impact”.
Similarly, two university academics claim that the new exam will have “a devastating effect” on many individuals.
University academics Dr Jessica Guth of Leeds Beckett University and Dr Kathryn Dutton of York St John University wrote about the exam in The Law Teacher journal and said: “For many, equality of opportunity remains a distant dream… The inequalities inherent in the higher education system – the route which most still take to becoming a solicitor – are perpetuated in the profession.”
They laud the SRA for its aims but say unless firms change their recruitment practices they are excluding “very talented young minds” due to where they are born and who their parents are. One suggestion they make to overcome this problem is to introduce genuinely blind recruitment practices.
Revolutionising access to the profession
Others take the opposite view about the potential effect of the SQE. Susan Pearlman is a former head of legal knowledge at Herbert Smith Freehills and a tutor at the University of Law. In an article in The Lawyer she says she was initially sceptical about the new exam but says she “realised that to truly consider the merits of the SQE, you have to look beyond the exams themselves”.
“Allowing candidates to gain qualifying work experience in a far wider range of settings will be revolutionary in opening up access to the profession,” she says. Not so argues Clowly, who contends that this will simply move the current training contract bottleneck to those seeking newly qualified positions.
One thing seems inevitable, and this is that more solicitors will qualify each year. If so, is this necessarily a bad thing?
Not according to Mark Edwards, senior vice-president of online legal services provider Rocket Lawyer. He thinks that in a few years there will probably be four times as many qualified solicitors and that this is a positive as these new lawyers “are going to be able to help all those people currently not able to access justice”.
A wider talent pool
Susan Pearlman also sees the upside of more lawyers qualifying. She says that teaching at the University of Law has shown her that many “bright and committed students” were being lost to the profession as a result of failure to secure a training contract.
“Not only will [the SQE] mean a career in law becomes a realistic ambition for a far more diverse range of people, but it will widen the pool of talent of new joiners, which will result in benefits to the legal profession and therefore the clients, the people and the communities lawyers work with,” she says.
No one can argue against the benefits of diversity and the SRA is to be applauded for this assuming the concerns about the cost of the exam and recruitment mentioned above are overcome.
What about the SRA’s goal of driving up standards?
On this, there is also some disquiet with the JLD saying the removal of the requirement to study academic law and the inclusion of multiple-choice questions in the exam “will lead to a lowering of professional standards”.
This is echoed by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, who have written to the Legal Services Board saying that it has “significant concerns” about the new exam. In particular, it said it is “unconvinced that enough attention has been paid to the potential long-term impact of removing the requirement for academic study of law”.
Are the JLD and select committee right? Will the new exam lower standards rather than raise them? This is something we will examine further in a future blog.