The Law Society has called on the government to devise a loan system for students taking the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), warning that candidates from less privileged backgrounds could face a ‘significant barrier’ to the legal profession.
In its spending review submission to the Treasury, the Law Society warned that SQE preparatory courses, plus the cost of the exams themselves, are likely to cost students over £20,000. This figure does not include any costs candidates incur for travel and accommodation.
‘We are concerned that candidates from less privileged backgrounds will face a significant barrier to entry to the legal profession, with consequences for the diversity of the profession,’ the Society said.
It also warned that the cost of the SQE could have implications for the government's 'levelling up' policy. ‘While City law firms will be able to continue covering the costs of qualification for their trainees, as they do currently, the smaller firms that dominate in small and medium-sized towns will not have the money to do likewise. These regional firms’ ability to attract talented individuals and create good quality, high value, professional jobs in their local areas will come under threat.’
The Law Society recommended the introduction of a publicly funded loan scheme for SQE candidates, similar to the ‘professional career development’ loans that were available to students on the Legal Practice Course before the scheme was discontinued.
‘There are a number of different avenues for achieving this – whether by extending an existing scheme, such as the ‘advanced learner’ loans scheme, or by creating a bespoke product – and we are open to working with the government to identify the most appropriate solution,’ the Law Society said. According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, 1155 candidates have signed up to take the first ever SQE assessment next month.
The Society also told the Treasury that apprenticeship levy money should be deployed more flexibly, to soften the impact of the pandemic.
‘Retraining schemes can help solicitors who have lost their jobs during the pandemic to find new employment in a different practice area, and enable firms to create the new jobs that will provide the backbone of the sector in the long-term,’ it said.
‘The government can facilitate this without the need for an additional injection of public money by making changes to the apprenticeship levy, to allow firms the flexibility to spend levy funds on retraining schemes for existing staff and training contracts for new entrants to the profession.'
It stressed the particular importance of LawTech seats, training in secondary specialisations, and training contracts and placements.