SQE could place solicitors at disadvantage to bar, academic warns

Topics: Junior lawyers,Legal Education

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Proposals to introduce a central exam for would-be lawyers could damage the solicitor brand, putting those competing against direct access barristers at a disadvantage, an academic legal expert has warned.

Anthony Bradney (pictured), professor of law at Keele University, said that while large corporate firms can rely on the ‘City’ brand, smaller and high street firms rely on the solicitor brand.

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His comments come as the Solicitors Regulation Authority consults on plans to introduce the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), a centralised exam to be taken by all would-be solicitors to facilitate more flexible routes into the profession.

Speaking at a forum organised by thinktank Politeia, Bradney said: ‘Solicitors have not always enjoyed a good reputation and haven’t always been regarded as high-level professionals. Reputations are very hard to gain and very easy to lose. The SQE could well be the way in which solicitors will lose their reputation.’

He said the proposals were worrying particularly now it is possible to approach a barrister directly, as barristers would be able to advertise themselves as more highly qualified than solicitors. 

This, he said, was important as the Bar Standards Board is simultaneously consulting on raising the degree classification needed to get onto the bar vocational training course from a 2:2 to a 2:1.

Bradney said: ‘What we have are barristers who can say that they have high academic standards and qualifications – and solicitors who have got the SQE. Who is a client going to go to? A solicitor or a barrister?’ 

His concerns about the proposals are echoed in his report Dumbing Down the Law, published by Politeia. In the report he points out how other professionals such as teachers and nurses are required to have a degree.

‘Emphasising the lack of connection between degrees and qualification, as the SRA is doing, when other occupations are doing the reverse will diminish confidence in particular,’ he said.

Viola Joseph, a solicitor and legal learning leader at international firm Hogan Lovells, also warned against introducing the SQE. She said that although the plans were intended to help boost diversity, they would in reality have the opposite effect.

She explained that this was because firms would look more closely at what pathway an applicant had taken to qualification and where they had studied, as the firms would not trust the SQE.

Their comments add to concerns already voiced about the proposals. The Law Society warned that it could promote nepotism and favour the wealthy, while at a Gazette roundtable, junior lawyers said the plans were deeply flawed and could make it harder for students to get a cheap loan. 

Readers' comments (25)

  • Would people please stop talking about bloody 'brands!'

    When I see that word in this context, I will read no further and just lose the will to live!


    LB

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  • It's not the 1950s when huge numbers of highly intelligent young people didn't go to university. I can't see the point of this non-graduate route to the profession unless it's to provide a huge workforce of cheap trainees who can never get a position on being admitted.

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  • Are direct access barristers having any impact on most solicitors? I can see some corporations may be attracted to it, but for the ordinary punter I'm not sure.
    I haven't come across Counsel who could run a file efficiently. That's not their expertise. They can't gather evidence and shepherd the client and experts from start to finish like solicitors - that's our expertise.

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  • The award of Degrees do not of themselves ensure fitness to serve as a Solicitor. Many non Greduates have acquired good practical experience which then serves them well upon qualification as a Solicitor.I would suggest that a rigourous Finals examination ensures high academic standards are met. I don't buy into this concept of "brands" ......total poppycock to put it politely !

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  • I always envied counsel's ability just to walk away after a bad day in court leaving me to try to calm down an irate client. I soon learned to travel to court by car and to be able to say I was going on somewhere else afterwards. One journey home with such a client was enough to teach me that.

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  • Let's face the present reality:

    1) The reputation of the solicitors profession is already ruined so just accept that it is no longer reputable or a profession and diversity appears to mean that it needs non-graduates and those without any qualifications so that being unfit or unable to qualify is no longer a bar to entry for all who want to do it.

    2) If you are a graduate, work hard at staying up to date with the law and being a good lawyer, just transfer to the bar to enjoy all the free advocacy training the Inns provide, greater respect from judges and the public, dirt cheap PII from the Bar Mutual and simply remain in your firm as a direct access barrister. It's a no brainer!

    3) The bar have always been great at protecting themselves so why not let them protect you too? Just ditch the Law Society and the SRA and embrace the Bar Council and the BSB who are far easier (and cheaper) to deal with.

    4) If all you do is conveyancing, wills, probate etc then how can you resist what the Council for Licensed Conveyancers have to offer with their light touch regulation and master PII policy?

    I say let the SRA continue to regulate all the 'qualified' solicitors out of the profession so that it is just left with the uneducated dregs who would otherwise be estate agents or work for banks or insurance companies.

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  • It will be funny when those solicitors who have qualified via SQE decide they want to be real lawyers and transfer to the bar. Suddenly, the learned types with a first class degree from Oxbridge won't feel very elite when they meet their new colleagues with an O level in woodwork. They will only need to complete the SRA Higher Rights course and the BSB can't keep them out. Game on!

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  • The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority clearly puts diversity ahead of excellence or even a satisfactory level of competence. If it has its way, the ‘solicitor brand’ will have as much stigma attached to it as say CILEX or low level insurance company claims handlers. In my view, the SRA should be ensuring that the profession only remains open to graduates with a minimum 2:1 degree – this will improve our standing as serious professionals. Further, it (and the Law Society) should be campaigning to ensure that Solicitors regain their rightful place as the only litigators within the English and Welsh legal system – no legal executive or paralegal should be carrying out litigation without rigorous supervision from a Solicitor. Diversity matters but the lowering of standards is too high a price to pay.

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  • Jonathan Massey @ 05:28pm

    You say that the SRA puts diversity ahead of excellence or a satisfactory level of competence but then seek to exclude one branch of the legal profession (legal executives) from carrying out certain legal work unsupervised even though they may well be excellent.

    Your argument is flawed.

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  • @Jonathan Massey14 February 2016 05:28 pm:

    "....In my view, the SRA should be ensuring that the profession only remains open to graduates with a minimum 2:1 degree – this will improve our standing as serious professionals. .."

    No need. Just bring the LSF back (with its 35% pass rate in some places).

    That didn't discriminate between Oxbridge and Spunkbridge, only ability to learn how to mange files in practice (and above all when to seek assistance and not to bottle up).... .

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