Proposals to introduce a central exam for would-be lawyers could damage the solicitor brand, putting those competing against direct access barristers at a disadvantage, an academic legal expert has warned.

Anthony Bradney (pictured), professor of law at Keele University, said that while large corporate firms can rely on the ‘City’ brand, smaller and high street firms rely on the solicitor brand.

His comments come as the Solicitors Regulation Authority consults on plans to introduce the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), a centralised exam to be taken by all would-be solicitors to facilitate more flexible routes into the profession.

Speaking at a forum organised by thinktank Politeia, Bradney said: ‘Solicitors have not always enjoyed a good reputation and haven’t always been regarded as high-level professionals. Reputations are very hard to gain and very easy to lose. The SQE could well be the way in which solicitors will lose their reputation.’

He said the proposals were worrying particularly now it is possible to approach a barrister directly, as barristers would be able to advertise themselves as more highly qualified than solicitors. 

This, he said, was important as the Bar Standards Board is simultaneously consulting on raising the degree classification needed to get onto the bar vocational training course from a 2:2 to a 2:1.

Bradney said: ‘What we have are barristers who can say that they have high academic standards and qualifications – and solicitors who have got the SQE. Who is a client going to go to? A solicitor or a barrister?’ 

His concerns about the proposals are echoed in his report Dumbing Down the Law, published by Politeia. In the report he points out how other professionals such as teachers and nurses are required to have a degree.

‘Emphasising the lack of connection between degrees and qualification, as the SRA is doing, when other occupations are doing the reverse will diminish confidence in particular,’ he said.

Viola Joseph, a solicitor and legal learning leader at international firm Hogan Lovells, also warned against introducing the SQE. She said that although the plans were intended to help boost diversity, they would in reality have the opposite effect.

She explained that this was because firms would look more closely at what pathway an applicant had taken to qualification and where they had studied, as the firms would not trust the SQE.

Their comments add to concerns already voiced about the proposals. The Law Society warned that it could promote nepotism and favour the wealthy, while at a Gazette roundtable, junior lawyers said the plans were deeply flawed and could make it harder for students to get a cheap loan.