I recently attended a pivotal conference concerning the introduction of the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). SQE represents one of the biggest shake-ups in legal education in modern times. Gone will be the LPC, GDL or the need for an LLB or LLM degree to qualify as a solicitor. In their place will be two SQE exams, Stage 1 will be designed to test legal ‘foundation’ knowledge and Stage 2 will test practical and professional skills.
The new SQE will be open to all graduates regardless of the degree they studied. Rather than the two-year training contract required under the current system, prospective lawyers will instead have to undertake two years Qualified Work Experience (QWE). This can be carried out in as many as four different organisations (replacing the current requirement of undertaking a training contract with one firm). It will be possible to count paralegal experience gained before undertaking the SQE as well as pro bono work and even work undertaken within a University Law Clinic. This radical and, to some, revolutionary change to legal education is due to commence in 2020 – though students currently studying to train as a solicitor need not fear; a transition period will allow students who have already begun their legal studies to continue under the current system beyond 2020 if they so wish.
Greater benefit to employers
So as the start date draws nearer, is the change the right one? The major advantage of SQE is that it will provide academic consistency and uniformity for the training of solicitors across England and Wales. All students will take the same exam set by a single board and will be marked in the same way. Legal Practice Course (LPC) providers will not have the autonomy to set and mark their own assessments. This, it is argued, will be of great benefit to employers as they will be able to assess the skills and knowledge of prospective lawyers under a single standard with transparent criteria. Under the current system each course provider sets their own syllabus, exams and grade boundaries which can lead to large variations in the skill set and knowledge of prospective lawyers. The consistency under SQE will provide greater fairness to students and provide employers with the ability to better assess students’ skill sets.
However, some argue, a single assessment protocol may stifle creativity and adaptability amongst prospective lawyers. The current system gives students the opportunity to specialise in a variety of legal sectors from common law to human rights law and the corporate elements of equity finance, acquisitions and mergers law. Another issue relates to the level of academic attainment this will be set at. At present students study their law degree covering levels 4 -6 and then complete the LPC at level 7. Will SQE be assessing level 7 criteria across both the law and legal skills components? There are some I’ve spoken to (including a number at the conference) who have expressed concern that the SQE may result in a diluted version of the LPC. Though would this necessarily be a problem? As long as the new SQE meets the threshold benchmarks for qualifying as a solicitor, consolidating and streamlining the training could save both time and cost for students. There would be nothing stopping Law Schools providing SQE preparation courses that provide additional specialisms representing the requirements of legal practices in their area. It was even mooted at the conference that a few local ‘high street’ firms may collaborate with their regional Law School to create bespoke courses as appropriate.
Fit for purpose
At Pearson Business School we are better prepared for the changes than most. Our MLaw degree already exempts students from the LPC qualification while also providing them with an LLM (in Professional Legal Practice). Our degrees are designed, developed and delivered in partnership with leading law firms; we have industry workshops with professionals from global companies such as Clifford Chance and Allen and Overy, so we hear about the needs of law firms (both large and small) every day.
The SQE has the potential to be a major step forward in legal education, but it must first overcome the natural teething problems inevitable in introducing such a significant change. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (alongside its assessment partner, Kaplan) has made clear their determination to introduce a new assessment protocol that is both fit for purpose and scrupulously fair to all the stakeholders involved. It is worrying that the level of ignorance concerning SQE remains high; especially within schools and colleges; though the SRA do appear to be aware of this issue. Ultimately, to ensure the SQE is a success, all the various interested parties require every opportunity to provide appropriate input. By maximising the forums for discussions and lines of communication, the risk of implementation problems will be diminished.
John Clifford is Head of Law at Pearson Business School, part of Pearson College London – the first higher education institution in the UK to be founded by a FTSE 100 company – Pearson Plc.