In an unexpected stipulation, diplomas must be cute animals which make everyone 'SQEEEEEE!'
The Legal Services Board has finally given a (qualified, slightly reluctant) green light to the SRA's proposed replacement for the GDL and the LPC, clearing the path for the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination on 1 September 2021.
Nine years in the making, the SQE revolutionises how solicitors will qualify.
The examination component does away with separate exams for each subject area. Instead, 'SQE1' will comprise two sets of 180 multiple choice questions designed to assess legal knowledge, while 'SQE2' will assess practical legal skills such as drafting, research and case analysis in 12 written exercises.
Candidates will not need a law degree, or even a non-law degree, if they have an "equivalent qualification" or an apprenticeship comprising "equivalent experience".
In a significant change from the current system, their two years of 'qualifying work experience' (QWE) will not have to be completed as a block two year training contract with a single provider. Instead, candidates can work at up to four appropriate places, which will include student law clinics and pro bono projects.
Lending further flexibility to the process, all elements can be completed in any order, except that SQE1 must precede SQE2.
The proposals for the exam element met with fierce criticism during their gestation. The Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society said changes such as dropping the requirement for a law degree or a GDL, and relying on multiple-choice questions, would "damage both our reputation internationally and water down the quality of the profession".
Critics had also queried whether it was right that a candidate with poor English language skills could incur costs passing SQE1, only to be scuppered by the written element of SQE2.
"We want to make sure everyone has a fair shot at qualifying", countered Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the SRA, and a written skills test "could exclude capable candidates, who with more training and professional experience, could develop the right skills to become good solicitors". Ultimately, she said "nobody will qualify if they can’t show they have the right legal skills.”
Welcoming the LSB's approval, Anna Bradley, Chair of the SRA, said the SQE "will provide assurance that all aspiring solicitors meet consistent, high standards at point of entry to the profession. It will also open up new and diverse routes to qualification".
The LSB’s endorsement was more muted. “We have approved the SRA's application because there are no grounds for refusal", said Dr Helen Philips, Chair of the LSB. Philips conceded that "if the regulator follows through on its commitments", the SQE would "benefit people who need legal services", although she also warned that the SQE "is untested, however, and not without risk".
A decision on whether to approve the SQE was delayed by two months while the LSB, which oversees the SRA, probed its proposal and extracted various extra undertakings. Those included an assurance that the SRA would commission independent research into the reason why some protected minority groups did not perform as well as other groups on the SQE pilots, an issue which generated controversy in 2019 when the SRA floated the possibility of dropping all written elements of the SQE to address the discrepancy.
The LSB also required the SRA to tighten up its QWE proposals to prevent poor treatment of candidates, by building in "additional safeguards" and more extensive monitoring of "how things are working in reality".
The JLD said it was “disappointing” that the LSB had approved the application when there appeared to be “substantial reliance on assurances provided by the SRA in relation to unpublished guidance”, and that it seemed as if the first few cohorts of candidates to sit the SQE “will effectively be taking part in an amended pilot”.