Encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to become solicitors has long been a priority for the Law Society. So we are particularly pleased a recent independent study found the ‘super exam’ being proposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for all would-be solicitors could increase social mobility.
The study, Monitoring and Maximising Diversity, commissioned by the SRA and conducted by the Bridge Group, concluded that the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) has the potential to support diversity through greater flexibility in training pathways.
The SRA’s initial consultation on the SQE triggered a strong reaction from the Law Society and the profession. But the SRA has come far from its initial proposition and has shown a willingness to listen to stakeholders and make changes in response to rational, robust arguments. For example, the inclusion, within the revised proposals, of a degree-level qualification and two years’ work-based training in all routes to entry – key factors in contributing to the robustness of a solicitor’s competence and the international respect that England and Wales enjoys as a jurisdiction – is something we called for.
The Society welcomes the changes made to the proposals so far, but there is still more work to be done before the SQE can be considered ‘right’. We are encouraged by the Bridge Group’s recognition that further steps are required on social access and diversity, as the routes to qualification will become increasingly complex and challenging to navigate. Its conclusions correspond with the Society’s previously stated concerns regarding proposals for a wider range of entry routes.
Our anxiety around the impact of the SQE on social mobility is shared by other stakeholders, especially where current arrangements for accessing funding for courses and assessments are uncertain. The Junior Lawyers Division is concerned about the inequalities that may emerge through different pathways through the work-based learning element, with those who follow a more traditional route being potentially perceived as better than those who have followed a more flexible pathway with multiple placements.
It is helpful that the Bridge study highlighted the risks associated with the proposed changes, and it is vital that relevant applicants are able to get grants to study for the SQE. We have strongly suggested that the SRA should ensure the final SQE proposals meet government funding criteria and that the SRA should take steps to liaise with government as part of their work developing proposals.
These proposals are the biggest shift since the 1970s in the way those seeking to enter the profession are taught, trained, and the way firms recruit. Above all, it is essential that the changes must not raise credible question marks over the adequacy of the training and competence of those entering the profession. As I often repeat, solicitors are an essential part of the justice system and its integrity. Anything which diminishes the profession undermines the rule of law. If the SQE is to be deemed a success, those responsible for providing the key building blocks must be given time to adapt, to seek information and be confident in the testing regime and in meeting any new requirements.
More widely, the Bridge report echoes our general position in encouraging the SRA to consider the pace and timing of implementation, the robust collection of data and analysis, and liaising increasingly closely with employers to secure and maintain confidence in the rigour and relevance of the SQE.
The assessment provider for the SQE is yet to be appointed, and the assessments are yet to be developed. Just how the SRA will manage these concerns is yet to be seen. As this process unfolds these are concerns which must be foremost in the minds of those carrying out this development.
The Law Society has listened to concerns and raised many of these with the SRA – with positive results – and will continue to do so.
Robert Bourns is president of the Law Society