Professor Elizabeth Smart, head of law at Sheffield Hallam University, responds to the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority latest consultation on a new single assessment for would-be solicitors – the Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination (SQE).
One of the biggest gripes about the SRA’s original consultation on the SQE was the lack of detail. How could we decide whether to get behind proposals without knowing how it all fits together?
The good news is that this second consultation provides the promised greater detail and clarification lacking in the first. And there are areas where the SRA has responded well to challenge, but inevitably it raises as many questions as it tries very hard to answer.
The requirement of a degree or equivalent makes a welcome return to the stage providing vital quality reassurance where before there was very little. Serious concerns raised about assessment rigour have been met with complex detail in response to determined voices seeking clarification around the proposed method of assessment.
The detail fleshes out the bones of the assessment and is described as ‘rigorous’. It is certainly not for the faint hearted. It would be difficult now to argue that it could be completed by just anyone with a passing fancy to become a solicitor.
Lastly, a compulsory period of work experience of between eighteen and twenty four months will become a formal requirement at point of qualification.
Learning in the workplace
The proposals enable the integration of academic, professional and work place learning which is accepted best educational practice. This is to be welcomed. They encourage the creation of innovative degree programmes which are designed to achieve exactly this type of integration.
For example, where students work in authorised and regulated law clinics and firms throughout their entire period of study. When this type of learning is taking place, up to and including at master’s level, this is demanding work. Integrating professional competences, the academic curriculum, and assessed professional work experience in a regulated solicitors’ practice is legal professional education at its very best.
However, the proposed metric for counting time towards that work experience appears overly simplistic and fails to take into account the all important quality of the work experience itself.
A case for quality not quantity
The SRA promotes the integration of academic, professional and work placing learning while simultaneously imposing a straitjacket at odds with their stated desire to produce flexible pathways to qualification. A truly integrated degree provides an educational journey which is in many respects more valuable than two years work experience in an office in isolation. It is this value which should be recognised.
Legal professional education in England and Wales should be of a gold standard. That means from the outset providing the opportunity to put the law into practice in a professional working environment; to learn from mistakes; and to reflect and to develop as a practitioner. There is a risk here that a gold standard educational experience will not be sufficiently recognised for the qualities it provides.
How the period of work experience is evaluated and measured could adopt a much more flexible approach than number crunching. It is the demonstrable quality of the experience as a whole which should be measured, not the hours in the day or the days in the week; this type of metric constrains innovation and excellence, challenging the very flexibility the profession seeks to achieve.
There is much to welcome in what the SRA are proposing. But ultimately we must make sure, in every aspect, that quality trumps quantity.
Lawyer 2B welcomes all views on the SRA’s proposals, from students, academics and professionals. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to have your say.