Upon publication of this article, hundreds, if not thousands of graduates will have embarked on the next stage of their legal education and training – the Legal Practice Course (LPC). The LPC is the bridge that connects one’s academic studies with their subsequent training in a law firm pre-qualification.
Over the years, many commentators have questioned the value of the LPC. However, we have been particularly impressed with the commercial elements. We selected the University of Law to be our exclusive course provider in 2015, with our future trainees required to undertake the LPC MSc in Law, Business and Management if they still need to study it. What appealed to us about the MSc element of the course was how it adopted a client focus onto the LPC and embedded business knowledge into the traditional legal teaching offered on it.
However, in late 2015 the SRA proposed a shake-up to the way in which solicitors qualify and carried out a public consultation on introducing a new standardised system for assessing trainees – the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).
The intention of the SQE is to create a universal measure for assessment based on a new competence statement developed by the SRA. The SRA have also said that “pre-qualification workplace experience is an important part of qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales and is likely to form part of any new system.” In principle then, this appears to be a refreshing concept within the legal arena that bears similarities with the accounting profession.
Nevertheless, following on from the consultation although there was some support for it, there was also considerable opposition. Many respondents required more detail on how the whole qualification process would work before they could come to a conclusion, while others questioned whether the current system was actually broken in the first place to require such a sweeping change.
In response, The SRA put back its final decision on the SQE until spring next year and has stated that there will be a second consultation. As things stand, “moving the decision back means the suggested start date for the SQE moves from 2018 to no earlier than the academic year 2019 / 20.”
So, what could this mean? Although we have no fundamental objection to a centralised, universal measure of assessment, the devil is in the detail.
And right now, it may feel to some like jumping into the unknown.
Would a graduate pay for a particular degree course without actually knowing the intricacies of its actual content and how it would be examined? If we therefore have an opaque and vague understanding on how the SQE and the new qualification process would work, is it not in principle unnecessarily devaluing the current robust process in place consisting of the academic degree, the GDL and / or the LPC, and the training contract?
Indeed, tougher critics would argue that this is just another case of the SRA shifting the onus of responsibility from the regulator to course providers and law firms themselves.
The SRA proposes that the SQE will have a positive impact on diversity and social mobility; having consistent standards will make the process towards becoming a solicitor cheaper and less prescriptive. However, there has been no clarification as of yet on what happens if you fail the SQE. Can you retake it? If so, how many times? Does this not mean that those who can afford to do the exam again will do so, whilst those who are financially challenged will struggle?
Furthermore, if you have some kind of authorised period of recognised training, it may be that the firm you are with will cover the cost of the SQE and potentially any subsequent retake(s). One could therefore argue on these points alone that the SQE does not really aid the widening of access to the legal profession for all in its current form.
In light of all of the debate, the SQE is evidently a radical departure from the qualification process as it is at present. As things stand, the SRA’s consultation has raised a number of concerns and questions. Nevertheless, one thing seems for certain – the SQE is not going away without a fight (if at all) and it’s going to be interesting to see the level of detail from the SRA within its second consultation.
However, in the meantime, let’s continue to embrace the role of the LPC, and a round of applause to those providers that have incorporated commerciality into their traditional legal teaching to make it relevant in the world of today.
Anup Vithlani is head of graduate recruitment and development at Trowers & Hamlins