The Solicitors Qualifying Exam could result in ‘precarious and exploitative’ jobs for junior lawyers, as small firms replace two-year training contracts with temporary positions, a trade union representing legal sector workers has warned.
Under the SQE regime – which came into force in September – trainees must complete two years of full-time work experience in order to qualify as solicitors. The work can be paid or voluntary, and can take place at up to four organisations, including law firms, law clinics and charities.
Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU), a branch of the United Voices of the World Union, claimed that new rules will result in shorter stints at firms which are reluctant to invest in training.
‘With trainees being able to easily move between firms, and quite possibly an expectation that they will do so, what was a two-year training contract will become four six-month contracts,’ James Cunningham of LSWU wrote in a blog for the Young Legal Aid Lawyers.
‘The danger is that the new SQE will create a two-tiered profession, with larger firms mimicking the training contract they already know and are familiar with and smaller firms offering temporary contracts as and when they need them and selling them as flexible. This isn’t “Fiverr” for junior lawyers, at least not yet, but when bosses say a job is flexible what they mean is it is precarious and exploitative.’
Cunningham added that trying to qualify as a solicitor in family, employment or criminal law ‘could turn into hoping you can bank enough work from a zero hours contract’ to meet the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s requirements. ‘If your hours are low, how long will it be before bosses start offering extra unpaid as a favour?’, he said.
LSWU conceded that the SQE will lower the financial bar to the profession and could improve diversity. 'But a cheaper ticket to greater exploitation isn’t an inviting prospect and by failing to address these issues the SRA have squandered an opportunity to redress the imbalances and inequalities throughout the profession.’
The SRA rebutted the LSWU’s claims, saying that the SQE does not put junior lawyers at any greater risk of exploitation.
‘The new approach offers greater flexibility for candidates,' an SRA spokesperson said. 'There is much more opportunity to earn-as-you-learn. And unlike with the golden ticket of a training contract, the ability to gain two years’ experience from more than one placement should empower candidates. They are more likely to feel comfortable making a switch if a role really isn’t working out or providing good quality experience.
‘It’s really important that employers and candidates have good conversations about their expectations of a role at the start of a placement. If any candidate feels they are being exploited, or have concerns, they should contact us.'
The SRA added that it will closely monitor how the system is working and that firms will face disciplinary action if they exploit candidates.
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