The Solicitors Regulation Authority has overruled objections from lawyers and law firms and is pushing ahead with a standardised exam for solicitors.
The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will replace all the current routes to becoming a solicitor, including the requirement for qualifications including the GDL and LPC. Instead, anyone wanting to become a solicitor will need to complete five elements. Firstly, candidates will need either a law degree, a non-law degree, an "equivalent qualification" or an apprenticeship comprising "equivalent experience". Candidates will then have to complete SQE stage 1, comprising an assessment of legal knowledge in six areas:
-Principles of professional conduct, public and administrative law and the legal systems of England and Wales
-Dispute resolution in contract or tort
-Commercial and corporate law
-Wills and trusts
And, in addition, they must pass a practical assessment of legal research and writing skills. Candidates must then complete SQE 2, which assesses five practical legal skills:
-Legal research and written advice
Each of the five skills will be assessed twice, in the context of two specialisms picked from dispute resolution, property law, commercial and corporate law, wills and trusts, or criminal law. The fourth element of the SQE will be two years' work experience. In a significant change from the current system, it will no longer have to be completed as a block two year training contract with a single provider. Instead candidates will be permitted to gain work experience at up to four different places, including student law clinics and pro bono work. It means students on a so-called 'sandwich' degree course which wraps up two years' work on the job could fulfill the work experience element of SQE before they even graduate. The SRA said this would "remove a barrier which has created a real block on numbers and diversity".
The fifth component is a "character and suitability test" to be administered at the point of a candidate's admission to the profession. So far the SRA has not provided details of the requirements, but it has said the standards will be supplied to candidates when they register to undertake SQE 1.
After initially forecasting that the SQE would be introduced this year, the SRA has pushed back implementation until 2020. Candidates will have until August 2020 to start training under the existing regime.
The SRA said it had undertaken 18 months of "extensive engagement" before coming to its decision. It received "over 240" formal responses to its first consultation in September 2015, and exactly 253 to the second consultation. It also "engaged with more than 6,800 people through 45 events, meetings and digital activities" and received "237,00 impressions on social media". The response was overwhelmingly negative. 60% of consultation respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the suggestion that the SQE was a "robust and effective measure of competence". Over 80% of academics, 70% of law firms and 65% of solicitors disagreed or strongly disagreed.
But the SRA has said that the public are in favour, touting an August 2016 poll in which 1,866 people were asked if they would have "more confidence in solicitors if they all passed the same final exam". 76% agreed with the (arguably rather leading) question, although the poll did not specify that the SQE would only apply to solicitors qualifying in England and Wales, and not to foreign-qualified lawyers.
At a press conference this morning SRA Chief Executive Paul Philip called the consultation "full-blooded", and said it had been the "most contentious" project the SRA had attempted. Executive Director Crispin Passmore said that (luckily for the SRA), "popularity has never been the objective of a regulator", and that "our board is clear this is the right way forward".
One of the key motivations for the SQE was, they said, a desire to increase the diversity of the profession by opening it up to those who were either put off by, or saddled with debt by, the "LPC gamble". At present, candidates who do not obtain a training contract and sponsorship from a firm have to decide whether to pay around £15,000 in course fees for the LPC, with no guarantee of a job at the end of it. SRA Director of Education and Training Julie Brannan said that "students who pay £15,000 are subsidising the cost of the big City law firms who bulk buy places [from LPC providers] at a discount, which does not seem fair". With the destruction of the LPC, those costs are gone. Despite that, LPC providers like BPP and ULaw may not be losers in the SQE era. Although SQE assessments are to be outsourced to a single body, legal education providers will be able to design SQE-preparation modules for candidates and firms, while City firms are expected to continue to demand bespoke training modules relevant to their specialisms. Professor Peter Crisp, Dean and CEO of BPP University Law School, said, "We have been consulting with law firms for some time now to ensure that any new programmes continue to meet their needs for commercially aware and technically able trainees".
Crisp also said that apprenticeships could now become one of the "major ways in which people qualify as a solicitor", and that there would also be an "exciting opportunity for smaller firms that historically have not paid for LPC training to recruit graduate talent at a much earlier stage than under the current system". For those recruited, "it will bring a welcome end to the financial burden of funding their own training".
While the SQE, particularly SQE 2, will still cost money, the SRA predicts it will be far cheaper that the LPC. Its executives rejected suggestions that the SQE would create a two tier system in which firms will continue to pick the candidates they have always picked, while the remaining candidates who obtain piecemeal work experience until they qualify will find themselves unable to secure a job. Passmore said that after "a while" firms would realise that some of their redbrick picks were not as good as the candidates qualifying elsewhere, and would change their recruitment processes to accommodate them.
With firms generally cutting the number of their trainee places and consequently hiring fewer NQs, and an increasing reliance on cheaper labour such as paralegals (or robots), the successful implementation of the SQE could result in lots more newly-qualified solicitors ending up unable to work as solicitors. Despite that, and the fact that many of those may be the more diverse candidates, the SRA has said that as a regulator its role was not to restrict the number of people who are permitted to meet the required standards. Philip said "we need to be able to trust those who enter the profession are fit to practise. The current system cannot provide that confidence". Whereas the SQE would "help law firms recruit the best talent", "help education providers to show just how good they are" and give candidates "from all backgrounds a fair opportunity to qualify". Sqeeee.