Super-exam: SRA aims for 2019 as it revises proposals

The new way of qualifying as a solicitor should be in place by 2019 and be built around four key tenets, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has said.

The organisation first put forward its proposed shake-up to the legal education system in England and Wales in December 2015, with the concept of a final super-exam taken at the point of qualification central to its thinking.

However, the plans for this Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE) drew widespread criticism from academics and professionals at both the junior and senior end of the profession.

As a response, the SRA delayed its final decision on the SQE until spring 2017 after the legal profession demanded more detail of how it would work. It has now launched a second consultation to address these concerns.

Speaking to Lawyer 2B, the SRA’s Director of Education and Training Julie Brannan said: “We were really pleased with the level of response in the first consultation. A lot of people felt they needed more detail. The conversation has really helped develop our thinking and the new proposals that take on board that feedback.”

In its revised proposals, the organisation has proposed four key building blocks that will lead to qualification as a solicitor.

Super-exam remains

Julie Brannan

One of those building blocks remains the two-stage SQE, with the first stage testing candidates’ ability to use and apply legal knowledge and the second stage – taken at the point of qualification – testing legal skills.

To back up its proposals, the SRA has commissioned independent polling which says that 79 percent of adults thought everyone should pass the same final exam to become a solicitor which 76 percent saying they would have more confidence in solicitors if they all passed the same final exam.

“The new model would introduce transparency and competitive pressures to drive up standards and reduce cost,” the SRA states. “In the current system, prices for the LPC have risen inexorably since it was introduced, in part (at least) because price is used as a proxy for quality.”

In a hint that the LPC is no longer seen as viable, Brannan added: “Law degrees cost a minimum of £9,000 and rising. That situation didn’t exist when the LPC was introduced. Given that fact, we don’t think that is sustainable any longer for people have to gamble up to £15,000 on the LPC before they know whether they will get work experience.”

Stage One of the super-exam could be taken before work experience was gained, but Stage Two would have to take place after.

Work-based learning enshrined

A ‘substantial’ period of work-based training would be the second building block. “It is central to the English and Welsh way of qualifying for solicitors and will continue to be a requirement,” Brannan said; “however, it might be able to be more flexible than a traditional training contract.” The SRA is proposing a ‘more liberal approach to workplace learning’ in response to concerns that many students find it hard to get a training contract.

As to the length of the training in the workplace, the SRA says it remains ‘unconvinced’ that 12 months is would be a long enough period and says it sees “significant merit in maintaining the current requirement for 24 months.”

“However, some have made the case for either 18 months or a more flexible approach,” it continues. “While we are minded to require 24 months, we would value more feedback in the light of this consultation.

Legal experience could be gained either “in an SRA-regulated entity or under the supervision of a solicitor in a non-SRA regulated entity,” with time spent working in a traditional training contract, a student law clinic, as an apprentice or a paralegal, or through a placement as part of a sandwich degree could all potentially contribute to the qualification requirement.

Degree or equivalent

A particular sticking point in the SRA’s first proposals was that some believed they did not make clear solicitors should be educated to degree standard.

In a paper published in February, one academic argued: “Nurses and teachers need to be graduates but it seems that SRA thinks solicitors don’t. The Bar is talking about raising the standard you have to have in your degree before you can take their examinations, but solicitors will not need to be graduates.”

The SRA has addressed this in the third building block which specifies that solicitors should have a ‘degree or equivalent’ qualification.

“Many people recognised solicitors as being a predominantly graduate profession; however, we also recognise the contributions made by chartered legal executives and apprentices and don’t want to cut routes like that off,” said Brannan.

The final building block is a character and suitability test.

Start date

The SRA has also made its first clear statement of when it hopes to introduce the new regime, with September 2019 slated as the date when the new regulations would come into effect.

English and Welsh candidates who had already started a qualifying law degree, conversion course, Legal Practice Course or training contract before that date would be able to choose whether or not to qualify under the old route or take the SQE, with all qualifying solicitors going through the new system by 2024.

The new system would bring us into line with international practice,” said Brannan. “It’s clear that this sort of model with core building blocks is what you have in many international jurisdictions.”

“We think it gives us two things: firstly, consistency at the point of qualification. It also enables us to be more flexible about how people have got there and recognises that different people learn in different ways.”

The consultation can be found here.