The SRA is proposing a single assessment for all – the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). To become a solicitor, you would need to take two sets of tests. While the detail is expected to be announced later this year, it’s likely this would mean some multiple choice tests of legal knowledge, followed by some practical tests (for research, drafting, interviewing and so on).
The idea is that there will no longer be any specific training courses required – so no need for a law degree, the Graduate Diploma in Law or Legal Practice Course. It could mean that if you pass the two sets of tests, you’re a solicitor. (The SRA is still considering whether workplace experience will still be needed too.)
It’s a big change and it sounds exciting – offering open access to the profession for all and a single standard for everyone to meet.
We support what the SRA is seeking to do. We care passionately about the diversity of the profession. We have a long history of recruiting and promoting those with a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. It ensures we deliver the best service to our clients – and it’s simply the right thing to do.
And we support rigorous standards for the legal profession which everyone who calls themselves “solicitor” has met. So you might think that we’d welcome the proposed SQE because it sets out to judge everyone by the same standard.
But we have major concerns about the proposals – we fear that the SQE will not test to a high enough standard and we fear the proposals will disadvantage the people they’re designed to help: those paying to study and especially those who don’t have access to information on what firms need in their newly qualified solicitors.
One of a lawyer’s key skills is the ability to analyse facts and build an argument. This takes legal knowledge – but more than that it needs analytical skills. It’s more than spotting the correct answer from five choices. Often the law will be unclear or evolving. How do you handle that uncertainty while still helping your client? This will be key to the service you provide.
We feel a common test for all solicitors must be set at a standard that is high enough for a newly-qualified lawyer to practise safely. New training providers may become established to offer the minimum level of training needed to pass the SQE – but they may not offer the quality of training you’ll need to work in a firm. And how will you know which are the best providers: the SRA does not plan to accredit or approve them.
This doesn’t mean all solicitors need to have a postgraduate qualification or even a degree – but they need to have built up the ability to analyse and present arguments. And for most people, studying for a degree offers a good route to developing the necessary skills – it’s a period of learning and reflection that helps to develop the flexible thinking needed for a career in law.
We’d like the SRA to grant partial exemptions for those with a law degree. If you pay to study for a law degree, you should not have to pay to relearn subjects, just to take a test that covers the same ground. And there will still need to be a route for those with other degrees – otherwise the profession will become less diverse than it is now.
The cost of the SQE looks set to be high (several thousand pounds) – for taking the tests alone. It means that students may have to opt for less training, to meet the cost of the tests. That can’t be good for their development – or for the clients they’ll be advising.
We understand the concern to help people who’ve studied law but not been able to find training contracts. It’s an important issue and why the SRA is looking carefully at whether workplace experience is really necessary.
It’s been suggested it’s also a concern that few trainee solicitors “fail” their training contracts. We see this as a reflection of the strength of the current system. The relationship between a firm and its trainees is strong: we want our trainees to succeed and we support them as they develop. A fixed two-year training contract gives trainees time to focus on their learning. It gives a relatively safe space so they can test out their skills. It can be the most significant learning of their careers. Without that safeguard, firms may compete to let trainees qualify as soon as possible – and trainees may be distracted from learning by a race to qualify.
We’re also concerned by the timetable proposed for implementing this change – from autumn 2018. It’s not clear what may happen to the content of law degrees as a result – some universities may integrate parts of the SQE within their degrees, while others may not. Students will need information to make the best career decisions for their future – and that information is not yet there.
Viola Joseph is legal learning leader and Ruth Grant is training partner at Hogan Lovells