The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s proposals for reforming the solicitors’ qualification process could create a two-tiered legal profession, the City of London Law Society (CLLS) has warned.

The SRA proposes that a Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) be taken by all would-be solicitors to facilitate more flexible routes into the profession. The new route would remove the need for solicitors to have a degree before entering the law.

But the CLLS has countered that most firms would continue to recruit only those with degrees or equivalent, while those who have qualified by taking the SQE without having completed a degree-level qualification would be less employable.

In its formal response to the SRA’s consultation, the CLLS said: ‘It would be misleading to give students the impression that a graduate education is not essential for some legal career options, and unfair to expect them to make career choices at such an early stage.

‘[City firms] are likely, in the main, to continue to recruit trainees who are graduates because they consider that degree performance, rather than the SQE, will provide the necessary assurances of a high level of academic skills. […] As City firms are by far the largest recruiters of intending solicitors, this could lead to a greater chance for a two-tier profession and therefore do little to improve diversity and social mobility.’

The CLLS also warned that the current proposals for the SQE would not be capable of ensuring the quality of education needed to enter the profession, and it expressed ‘grave’ reservations about the plans for part of the exam to use multiple-choice questions.

It said that while the practice of law has become increasingly complex, specialised and diverse, the central qualification does not reflect these changes. Focusing the second part of the central exam on reserved activities would be a ‘backward step’.

The CLLS said: ‘The SRA’s proposal to sheep-dip solicitors though this process runs counter to the realities of the practice of solicitors now and the direction in which the profession is heading into the future.’

It also said that the absence of grading in the SQE would means employers could not use it as a measure of the most able solicitors, and so would use other evidence such as good degrees, which it said would hit those from modest backgrounds the hardest.

Analysis – Chloe Smith

Obviously the whole point of consulting is to draw out criticism. But proposals with any merit in them would not attract such unanimous negativity on so many points. Especially as the aims of the reform are something the legal profession should support. Read more

The CLLS also warned about the burden firms are likely to have to shoulder as a result of the proposals.

It said: ‘We believe that little or no thought has been given to the disruption of firms’ businesses and to clients and the wider cost implications for firms, of either (a) requiring solicitors to have work experience in areas that are either peripheral to, or not part of, the practices of those firms or (b) more generally imposing a set of qualification requirements that do not allow for intending solicitors, as under the current training contract, to develop their skills and integrate themselves within their firms prior to qualification through an uninterrupted period of "on the job" training and close supervision and mentoring.’

The CLLS said that the SRA should not change the requirements for workplace training and said it was essential that the SRA continues to impose a minimum period of time for pre-qualification.

It said any absence of a minimum standard would exacerbate inconsistencies in the experience of newly qualified solicitors, and could create a ‘race to the bottom’ with firms forced to sign trainees off as soon as possible.

The CLLS said: ‘Until our fundamental objections […] are addressed, we are unable to support these proposals. We believe that there is room to meet the SRA’s concerns, especially about consistency in standards, by making improvements to the current system.’

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