The Solicitors Qualifying Exam has had its share of bad press over the years – including from me.
Multiple-choice questions? ‘Pah! we said. ‘Child’s play!’ Boosting social diversity? ‘Hah!’ we retorted, ‘Two-tier profession!’.
With the first assessment just a few months away, however, a troubling realisation has begun to dawn. Perhaps – beyond the scepticism and the teething problems and the nostalgia for the good old days of articled clerks – the SQE isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Over the past few months, a host of City firms have developed apprenticeship schemes incorporating the new SQE assessments. Allen & Overy has created a solicitor route for school leavers – the first magic circle firm to do so – and is recruiting an initial cohort of six teenagers to start next year. KPMG is also targeting non-graduates for its six-year solicitor programme, which promises permanent contracts at the end of it.
Other practices are trying to make it more financially viable for graduates to enter the legal profession. As someone who occasionally dabbles with the idea of packing in journalism and becoming a solicitor myself (reporting on too many City pay rises can do that to a person), I’ve watched the space with interest. While it’s clear that some firms are simply rebranding their training contracts as ‘apprenticeships’ to sound more down-to-earth – in much the same way as Waitrose markets ‘essential’ Ardennes pâté – others promise to make a genuine difference.
Reed Smith, for instance, is introducing an ‘earn as you learn’ programme, allowing graduates to start earning a salary before finishing their legal training. Similarly, Kennedys will allow law graduates to start working without completing the legal practice course (LPC), instead gaining the required work experience in one of its professional teams.
These developments do not allay concerns that the SQE will create a two-tier profession; that trainees backed by big firms will benefit from expensive training courses, while others will rely on cheaper, online ‘crammer’ courses. Nor do they address worries that the SQE will not test students thoroughly enough and risks ‘dumbing down’ the legal profession.
However, the new initiatives may open up City firms – which are frequently chastised for being too posh, too Oxbridge, and too white – to a wider range of candidates. From September, there will be other routes into the City than completing an undergraduate degree, a few hundred vacation schemes, perhaps a law conversion course, and an expensive LPC.
It’s not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.