Your regulator has set out a fuller picture of how the solicitors of the future might qualify.
The solicitor brand in England and Wales, when judged on the numbers of individuals in practice, has never been more popular. There are 136,701 practising solicitors in England and Wales. That is an increase of more than 14,000 compared to the same point five years ago.
The prestige of the profession brings with it an ever-growing appetite to become a solicitor, and with it a rising number of training providers. We now also have important new ways to qualify – a flexibility that mirrors the constantly changing legal services market.
Equivalent means and apprenticeships are modern versions of the old ‘earn-as-you-learn’ paths into the profession, paths trodden by some of our most eminent solicitors. It has never been a graduate-only profession and we believe that the new routes will yield a real diversity dividend, helping people from non-traditional backgrounds to carve out a rewarding career in law.
So how can we know that standards are indeed high and consistent? The reality is that we cannot. There are 2,000 firms offering traineeships and more than 160 law course providers, and there is no means of assessing quality across the board. Qualifications are simply not comparable – multiple courses and exams mean that standards may vary significantly. For example, LPC and GDL pass rates range from 50% to 100%, and it is unclear why there is such a discrepancy.
So we have a challenge. How can we make sure that the plethora of providers and the various routes into the profession produce solicitors who consistently achieve the high standards the sector needs? Over the years, much careful work has been done on this and we believe that the correct way forward is a single, centralised assessment for all aspiring solicitors. That is why we have this month launched a second consultation on a Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
We have listened to all the feedback from our initial high-level consultation and now we are setting out a fuller picture of how the solicitors of the future might qualify. The consultation explains what the SQE might look like and our overall requirements for qualifying as a solicitor.
The four building blocks of qualification we are proposing are:
- a degree, or equivalent qualification;
- a substantial period of workplace training;
- meeting our character and suitability requirements; and
- passing the SQE.
The SQE itself will provide an assessment which is rigorous, fair, transparent and consistent. It will be independently set and will use modern methodology. We are proposing that the SQE be in two parts – SQE 1 will involve six legal knowledge assessments, covering such subjects as criminal law, and dispute resolution, as well as legal research and writing legal skills assessment. After a period of work-based learning, candidates will take SQE 2. That will consist of five practical legal skills assessment, with reviews on drafting and advocacy included, taken in two practice contexts (such as property or commercial). We are consulting on the exact elements of the SQE, but overall our aim is to ensure that the SQE provides a thorough assessment of a candidate’s ability to use their legal knowledge in transactions or litigation, research and analyse legal issues, interview clients, undertake advocacy and draft legal documents.
Importantly, we are proposing much wider opportunities to gain that vital work-based experience. That will address the training contract bottleneck and, of course, completing SQE 2 after work-based experience tackles the ‘LPC gamble’.
We want to ensure high, consistent standards, regardless of the route taken, the university attended or candidates’ background. Trainees will benefit, not only because this would be fair and consistent, but because the new approach will make qualifying more affordable and flexible.
We have, of course, already consulted on SQE, and it certainly sparked much debate. Many respondents felt they needed more detail about how the whole qualification process would work before they could reach a firm view. Since then we have talked to many people to help further develop our thinking. There are a number of areas where we have either developed or changed our thinking in response to feedback, such as committing to a period of work-based learning, and for a degree or equivalent being required to qualify.
Chris Hale, senior partner at Travers Smith, told us: ‘The revised consultation paper goes a long way to answering the principal criticisms made of the previous one. Qualifying legal work experience is a vital part of the training of a prospective solicitor and it is pleasing to see that that has been recognised, and it is pleasing too that what is assessed at each stage of the SQE has been rethought.’
Charles Martin, senior partner at Macfarlanes, echoed that, saying: ‘We very much welcome the fact that the new consultation shows the SRA has listened carefully to comments from the profession. The consultation goes a long way to meet the concerns which have been voiced. The thrust of the proposals will help to maintain the quality and standing of the solicitor’s profession and will also help to support wider access to it in our view.’
We are still listening. Views will vary across the profession and we know that some current providers may have particular concerns. We will be discussing SQE proposals at events around the country and you can join our virtual reference group to feed through your comments, as well as submitting a formal response.
The consultation can be found at www.sra.org.uk/consultations, and further information on the virtual reference group and other strands of our education and training reforms are at www.sra.org.uk/t4t.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Julia Black is chair of the SRA Policy Committee