Under plans announced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) this week, the traditional pathway followed by thousands of graduates seeking a career in the law each year – the Legal Practice Course (LPC) – will no longer be mandatory before starting a training contract. Replacing the year-long LPC – currently the most popular route into the legal profession – will be the new Solicitors’ Qualifying Exam (SQE).
Why is this happening? According to the SRA, two words: cost and consistency. With the LPC costing up to £15,000, a shorter initial training phase may help to hold costs down, the SRA says.
On the consistency issue, around 30 universities and other institutions currently teach the LPC, all of which have slightly different entry requirements and assessment methods, leading to pass rates that vary across the sector. Although tailoring the programme curriculum to the various requirements of law firms may suit the profession, the SRA believes the LPC has moved too far away from its role as a standardised ‘entrance exam’ – something the new SQE super-exam aims to fix.
The implications are profound – and it’s understandable that many in the profession have misgivings. The LPC has become the gold-standard for the legal profession, trusted by students and law firms alike. Many fear the SQE will be a ‘dumbed down’ alternative. They worry that the reforms are unnecessary and that they may potentially limit the pool of talented graduates entering the legal profession. Moreover, legal educators will need to make dramatic changes to reflect the new regime from the regulator.
I confess I share some of those misgivings. Nevertheless, we are where we are and it helps to frame the SQE as a necessary minimum rather than the fully-fledged standard the market demands.
Many law firms will still require their trainees to undertake a programme that preserves the breadth and rigour of the LPC – a platinum-grade offering that will go well beyond the requirements of the SQE and includes the rigorous technical training in corporate finance, writing, drafting and legal research. Many firms will also want their future trainees to continue to have a thorough grounding in business finance and strategy.
With Brexit likely to present a new set of complex challenges for lawyers over the coming decade, sound legal and business education will be valued more highly than ever, so many will see value in the tried-and-tested model used to train top-class legal minds.
However, critics should admit that the SQE offers opportunities that weren’t readily available before. Some students and law firms will be keen to welcome more cost-effective training models closely aligned to the SQE. The reforms will allow training providers to create even more bespoke courses, and craft new programmes attuned to the needs of all law firms, many of whom might not have considered sponsoring their future trainees.
There are other opportunities created from the disruption to the status quo, not least the prospect that lower costs may entice a more diverse demographic. Smaller employers, too, will have the chance to reach promising candidates earlier without having to wait for their LPC training to finish before beginning train and mould their future talent.
Admittedly, the shape and extent of the new qualification are not yet known as details around the SQE’s curriculum and assessment methods remain in short supply. Yet whatever eventually emerges the SQE doesn’t change the essence of what good law colleges offer and what law firms want.
Professor Peter Crisp is Dean and CEO at BPP University Law School.