The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s proposal to introduce a central exam to be taken by all would-be solicitors could promote nepotism and favour the wealthy, the president of the Law Society warned today.

Introducing its proposals for a solicitors qualifying exam this week, the SRA said it would ensure all trainee solicitors reach the same high standards and would help widen access to the profession.

But the Law Society said that the exam could have the opposite effect, acting as a barrier to some of the best talent and damaging social mobility. 

Law Society president Jonathan Smithers (pictured) said that the removal of approved routes would create ‘uncertainty’ for those wishing to enter the profession and would most negatively affect those without access to good advice or sources of information.

He said: ‘This could promote nepotism and result in wealthier students being favoured especially as there may be no restrictions on the number of times an assessment could be retaken and no time restrictions on the completion of all elements.

‘It is likely that these proposed changes would disproportionately affect less-advantaged students because they would find it harder to gain funding for non-compulsory courses and will still need to prepare for the assessments in some way.

‘It is also likely that "crammer" courses or other such provisions will arise, which will intensify the cost.’

The Law Society has also warned that the move could damage the global competitiveness of the UK legal sector by removing the current approved routes to qualifying as a solicitor.

Smithers said that while the Law Society welcomed setting a standard for entry into the profession, quality indicators such as degree qualifications need to be maintained.

Smithers also stressed the importance of keeping a period of on-the-job training. In its consultation the SRA said it is likely that some form of work-based training will still be required before qualification. But it will continue to consider whether this approach remains appropriate as this can act as a ‘significant barrier’ for some.

He said: ‘The suggested changes, if they are seen to devalue the current qualification, could damage the global competitiveness of UK law especially if the standards achieved at the point of qualification are diminished.

‘English and Welsh solicitors play a significant role in the export of UK plc. The legal industry is worth more than £30bn to the UK economy.’

Smithers also challenged the SRA’s claim that the plans would help to lower the cost of entry in to the profession.

He said: ‘The SRA suggest that their proposals will increase access to the profession, but they admit that this will only be the case if legal education and training providers develop training courses that are cheaper and more flexible. 

‘However, there is no guarantee that this will be the case as the SRA has not yet appointed a provider for their proposed assessments and therefore cannot be assured of the cost.’

He added: ‘Overall, the consultation contains disappointingly little detail on the proposed assessments.’