The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is proposing that all new solicitors should take a final, competency-based exam before they qualify.
The Solicitors Qualifying Examination, or SQE, has been rumoured for a while, but the SRA has now officially opened a consultation on the proposal.
All intending solicitors, regardless of the type of training they had gone through, would have to take it in order to qualify.
Speaking to Lawyer 2B, the chair of the SRA’s education and training committee Martin Coleman said: “The main reason for doing this is to ensure that the high standards we expect of solicitors are maintained and consistently applied across the board.
“At the moment there are 104 institutions offering undergraduate law degrees, 33 offering the Graduate Diploma in Law, and 26 offering the Legal Practice Course, and there are over 2,000 firms offering traineeships.
“While we have very many training providers, there is no standard basis on which to measure the consistency of quality of students who emerge from the process.”
In addition, new pathways to qualification have emerged over the past few years as alternatives to the training contract, including the equivalent means route, dubbed the ‘paralegal short cut’, the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme for foreign lawyers wishing to practise in England and Wales, the new government-approved Trailblazer Apprenticeships and the University of Law’s Articled Apprenticeship.
“The idea of the SQE is that it will reassure the public that standards are common across the board, regardless of the pathway the individual has taken,” Coleman said.
Depending on the response it gets from its first consultation, the SRA will follow it up with a second consultation in 2016, which would look at the different pathways to qualification and how intending solicitors would prepare to take the exam. “We would hope that if we were satisfied of the rigour of the assessment, that would give us the confidence to relax our requirements around training pathways and to specify them in less detail that we do at the moment,” Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director of education and training, told Lawyer 2B.
What form might the exam take?
The proposed new assessment is based on the competence statement drawn up by the SRA earlier this year.
The SRA is currently thinking along the lines of a two-part assessment – a knowledge test and a skills test. In principle, people would take them at the point they felt ready: “You might be able to take the knowledge test while you were still at university,” Brannan said. However, “the skills test would be set at the point of qualification, so at the standard that people normally reach at the the end of the two-year training contract, not at the end of the LPC.”
Is this like the old Law Society final exam that existed before the LPC?
“It is absolutely not a return to Law Society finals days – a test I did myself,” Brannan said. “It’s not about rote learning, it’s about testing that all qualifying solicitors have the competencies that we’ve set out in the competency statement.”
“So far as knowledge is concerned, it’s not about memorising knowledge, it’s ensuring that intending solicitors can use legal knowledge effectively to address their clients’ problems, and it will include proper rigorous assessment of skills, which Law Society finals did not do.
“Times have moved on: we know from medical education in the context of qualifying doctors that these sort of skills-based assessments can work effectively in assessing large numbers of candidates in a consistent manner.”
Coleman added: “It’s very important that, regardless of their pathway to qualification, the intellectual and analytical level of all intending solicitors should be at least equivalent to graduate level, and the exam will ensure that is the case.”
What does this mean for the legal education landscape?
It would depend on the outcome of next year’s consultation but Brannan says that potentially, the SRA might no longer require everyone to take the LPC. “It could enable us to move away from the tripartite training we have at the moment – the silo of academic teaching, the silo of professional teaching and the silo of work-based teaching – and enable us to integrate all of those.”
Theoretically, intending solicitors might be able to gain experience of working in a law firm at the same time as learning the academic principles, and there might be more elements of what is currently the LPC built into undergraduate degrees.
“At the moment, students are usually introduced to cases on contract law in their first year of their undergraduate degree but don’t see a contract for the first time until the LPC three years later. I haven’t yet come across anyone yet who thinks that’s a good way of teaching,” Brannan told Lawyer 2B.
She continued: “It’s clear that different universities approach the teaching of law in different ways. I’m sure some will continue to teach law as an academic endeavour; others are more interested in integrating academic and professional training.”
What about the training contract?
The former chairman of the SRA may have challenged the wisdom of the training contract model, but the proposed changes do not necessarily pose a threat to its existence.
It certainly seems likely that some kind of work-based training will be mandatory before qualification as a solicitor is allowed. “We have already had a lot of views on the benefits of having a work experience element in the training process,” said Coleman. “We are currently minded to retain a pre-qualification work-based training requirement. We think that’s one of the distinguishing features of the English and Welsh system and one that’s served it well.”
This means the training contact would remain a perfectly valid way of qualifying, but the introduction of pathways such as the paralegal short cut mean that other work-based experience are already equally valid. Further exploration of the extent to which the SRA is able to liberalise requirements around pre-qualification training is probable. “Can we recognise other forms of experience working in law firms? Does it have to be one block of training over two years, or can it be split over time? Those are the sort of things we need to think more about,” Brannan said.
When will all this come to fruition?
If approved, the changes won’t come into force before the 2018/19 academic year. “One the one hand it’s important that we get this right; on the other hand were very aware that prolonging the uncertainty doesn’t help either,” Brannan told Lawyer 2B.
How can I have my say?
The consultation can be found here.