Single exam plan could create two-tier legal profession – City

Topics: City,Junior lawyers,Legal Education

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The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s proposals for reforming the solicitors’ qualification process could create a two-tiered legal profession, the City of London Law Society (CLLS) has warned.

The SRA proposes that a Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) be taken by all would-be solicitors to facilitate more flexible routes into the profession. The new route would remove the need for solicitors to have a degree before entering the law.


But the CLLS has countered that most firms would continue to recruit only those with degrees or equivalent, while those who have qualified by taking the SQE without having completed a degree-level qualification would be less employable.

In its formal response to the SRA’s consultation, the CLLS said: ‘It would be misleading to give students the impression that a graduate education is not essential for some legal career options, and unfair to expect them to make career choices at such an early stage.

‘[City firms] are likely, in the main, to continue to recruit trainees who are graduates because they consider that degree performance, rather than the SQE, will provide the necessary assurances of a high level of academic skills. […] As City firms are by far the largest recruiters of intending solicitors, this could lead to a greater chance for a two-tier profession and therefore do little to improve diversity and social mobility.’

The CLLS also warned that the current proposals for the SQE would not be capable of ensuring the quality of education needed to enter the profession, and it expressed ‘grave’ reservations about the plans for part of the exam to use multiple-choice questions.

It said that while the practice of law has become increasingly complex, specialised and diverse, the central qualification does not reflect these changes. Focusing the second part of the central exam on reserved activities would be a ‘backward step’.

The CLLS said: ‘The SRA’s proposal to sheep-dip solicitors though this process runs counter to the realities of the practice of solicitors now and the direction in which the profession is heading into the future.’

It also said that the absence of grading in the SQE would means employers could not use it as a measure of the most able solicitors, and so would use other evidence such as good degrees, which it said would hit those from modest backgrounds the hardest.

Analysis – Chloe Smith

Obviously the whole point of consulting is to draw out criticism. But proposals with any merit in them would not attract such unanimous negativity on so many points. Especially as the aims of the reform are something the legal profession should support. Read more

The CLLS also warned about the burden firms are likely to have to shoulder as a result of the proposals.

It said: ‘We believe that little or no thought has been given to the disruption of firms’ businesses and to clients and the wider cost implications for firms, of either (a) requiring solicitors to have work experience in areas that are either peripheral to, or not part of, the practices of those firms or (b) more generally imposing a set of qualification requirements that do not allow for intending solicitors, as under the current training contract, to develop their skills and integrate themselves within their firms prior to qualification through an uninterrupted period of "on the job" training and close supervision and mentoring.’

The CLLS said that the SRA should not change the requirements for workplace training and said it was essential that the SRA continues to impose a minimum period of time for pre-qualification.

It said any absence of a minimum standard would exacerbate inconsistencies in the experience of newly qualified solicitors, and could create a ‘race to the bottom’ with firms forced to sign trainees off as soon as possible.

The CLLS said: ‘Until our fundamental objections […] are addressed, we are unable to support these proposals. We believe that there is room to meet the SRA’s concerns, especially about consistency in standards, by making improvements to the current system.’

Readers' comments (14)

  • This is adopting an assumption that good academics equals good practitioner.

    I have worked with many excellent lawyers who had poor university results, and went to unremarkable institutions.
    But when they began practise they were better than a lot lawyers with First Class degrees from top universities.

    It does not matter how you enter the profession just make your mark when you do .

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  • I (semi) agree with the post above but I am also involved in recruitment to my firm. There are so many applicants for each post (and the competition is such) that I only really look at 3/4 As at A level and 2:1 or a 1st at degree level.

    It might seem harsh but why take the chance on someone with lesser qualifications when you don't have to?

    Universities and Law Schools that get kids to take out huge loans, on the promise they can get into a good firm with less than great academics, are peddling a lie and should be prosecuted for fraud.

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  • It is only about 35 years ago that the requirement to have a degree came into force. It was said to be a good thing. It is only 20 or so years since Tony Blair declared that at least half school leavers should go on to obtain degree qualifications. It was said to be a good thing.
    Now the SRA says solicitors do not need to have degrees. Is that a good thing as well?
    I am hopelessly confused

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  • I didn't go to university. I was a Legal Exec. I went to night school and read law at the library. It took me a long time. I qualified and on the day I was admitted opened up practice as a sole practitioner.
    It was not uncommon for Legal Execs to qualify as solicitors and we were generally respected for the know ledge we had, particularly of practice, after all we had had years of practical experience.

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  • .... but not necessarily spelling.

    I have worked with a number of Legal Execs and they were all good, solid lawyers with very specific product knowledge. I think the issue - if any - was breadth of experience including things like accounts, taxation, etc. Also I think a number of people are forgetting that serving long articles as a clerk was the alternative way into the profession back in the day and I don't see this proposal as substantially different. So all that is really being proposed is re-introducing a bit of our lost culture.
    I do however fail to see the point. There are more qualified university law graduates than we know what to do with and Legal Execs fulfil the function of the second tier well where required to do so. What is the point of this?

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  • We live in increasingly specialised times. Standards in all professions are now higher than they ever were. There is increasing specialisation required. The lowering of basic entry qualifications seems to me to be motivated by an agenda to undermine the profession. This will reduce standards. Compare this idea with a comparable move within the medical profession. Would anyone suggest that the standards required of medical trainees should be lowered? Why not give all nurses the title of 'doctor'!

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  • It has been many, many years now since the Law Society / Solicitors Regulation Authority lost sight of the fact that some exams have a dual function: (i) to measure competency and (ii) select people for the few really good jobs there are in the legal profession.

    Passing exams to become a lawyer is not the same as passing a driving test.

    There is no unlimited supply of good jobs in the legal profession, whilst there is no limit to the number of people who can, theoretically, be allowed to drive a car provided they reach a minimum level of competency.

    Understand that basic point and design some exams, tests, call it what you may, that ends up giving the good jobs in law reasonably fairly / impartially, and I think that the Law Society / Solicitors Regulation Authority will probably have the backing of a majority of stakeholders in general and solicitors in particular.

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  • "....Understand that basic point and design some exams, tests, call it what you may, that ends up giving the good jobs in law reasonably fairly / impartially, and I think that the Law Society / Solicitors Regulation Authority will probably have the backing of a majority of stakeholders in general and solicitors in particular. ..."

    I thought that was what the LSF did? But thick public school / Oxbridge kids couldn't pass them. So ....... can't be resisted meddling (aka 'reform'), can it?

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  • Personally, speaking as a 2010 LPC graduate, I don't see that this SQE would ultimately make much of a difference on the ground. A bad lawyer is a bad lawyer whether he or she has a 1st from Oxford or spent 10 years toiling their way up from the post-room; bad lawyers will not suddenly be able to hide in plain sight because they passed the SQE, they'll be employed on the same basis as lawyers are now and when they make a complete hash of things on the job they'll find themselves with the same reputation and lack of work they do now. Equally, the costs of setting up and practicing alone are hardly likely to become affordable in the near future, so I don't see that we'll be stuck with a sudden lorry load of incompetent SP's either.

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  • ...I might add, a good lawyer is a good lawyer and will remain so post SQE, one would think (hope?)...!

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