It is in all our interests to support a diverse legal profession, where talented people from all backgrounds can become solicitors.
This month the Gazette questioned whether the launch of a University of Law course undermined the case that the SQE would make the profession more accessible.
Before addressing that question, let’s remind ourselves of the core accessibility problem in the current system - expensive, prescriptive training requirements.
Many aspiring solicitors must take the 'LPC gamble' - investing large amounts up front with no guarantee of the golden ticket of a training contract. Talented people can spend tens-of-thousands on a degree, law conversion and LPC and still get stuck unable to qualify. Given these barriers, it is not surprising that many are put off even trying to become a solicitor.
Of course, this year we introduce the SQE - a single, rigorous assessment testing practical legal skills and knowledge. It will provide reassurance that all qualifying solicitors have met the same high standard, regardless of the route they have taken. That means there can be a much more flexible approach to training and work experience, giving people more choice: more ways to train, more affordable options, more opportunities to earn-as-you learn. The SQE is not a silver bullet but it has the potential to help make sure that a career as a solicitor is open to all.
So is the reality matching the aspiration? It’s early days, but the initial signs in the training market are positive.
An SQE candidate already has options to train more affordably. Just this week, the College of Legal Practice has launched SQE1 and 2 courses for a combined £4,100. It joins other providers who have announced a range of courses. In nearly every case they would enable you to train for under or around £10,000. That includes the £3,980 cost of taking SQE1 and 2.
The University of Law has launched a master’s which goes beyond what is needed for the SQE. The price tag is just below their LPC course and that is without the cost of the assessment. But importantly it is just one of nine SQE courses they are promoting - the most affordable starts at £500.
And many providers are doing the same - offering a suite of tailored courses, so candidates can choose what suits them.
The choice does not end there. There are other ways candidates can save money on training - from zero-cost solicitor apprenticeships to choosing a university course that incorporates SQE preparation. You can also choose to apply to work in a business - from Deloitte to Kennedys, DWF to Reed Smith - that is offering SQE training.
The SQE tests the core skills and knowledge expected of a day-one solicitor. It is a foundation on which training providers and firms can build.
There is an appetite in some quarters for bespoke training in areas such as legal tech, commercial awareness or project management and specialist legal subjects needed for particular practice areas. But of course extra training comes at a cost. Some employers and candidates will think it’s worthwhile doing this; others won’t.
This flexibility enables businesses to tailor training to their particular circumstances. No longer will everyone have to pay to study three LPC options regardless of whether they intend to practice in those areas. Instead, beyond the essentials, people can choose the training they need for their job – and training providers are responding by offering a range of courses.
No one will qualify if they can’t demonstrate they are good enough, but with more affordable options and a more flexible approach to work experience, everyone should have a fairer shot. After all, how and where you trained will be less relevant if you can show excellent exam performance. And with a consistent assessment, outstanding candidates will have a better chance of standing out.
We are not complacent. This is a developing picture - it is too early to draw firm conclusions. We will be monitoring the impacts of the SQE closely. Yet the progress so far means I am positive that we are on the right path: creating an assessment that will bolster trust in the profession, while enabling more talented people the opportunity to qualify.
Julie Brannan is SRA director of education and training