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SQE set for 2020 launch as affordable route for all into the profession

Central assessment for all combined with flexibility in building up practical experience will unlock options for prospective solicitors, says regulator

25 April 2017

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The solicitors qualifying examination will launch in 2020 as an egalitarian route opening access to the profession to greater numbers of prospective solicitors, the SRA announced this morning.

The new exam will do away with the requirement to undertake the legal practice course followed by the two-year training contract. In their place will be a two-stage assessment and a minimum practical experience period of two years to be taken in no fewer than four blocks.

Respondents to the first SQE consultation criticised initial plans to scrap the requirement for a degree altogether and the lack of minimum practical training, and these were reinstated in a second consultation.

The stage 1 assessment, the academic test, will cover the same areas as the current law degree or graduate diploma in law. Professional skills will be tested in stage 2, with the SRA expecting that this assessment will be taken by candidates after their two years’ practical training.

Director for education and training Julie Brannan said SQE would be ‘good for the profession because it will help secure confidence in high professional standards’ and was ‘good for students because they know they’ll all be assessed against the same standards’.

‘The new mechanism will unlock greater choice about routes to qualification and it will encourage more students and employers to consider the alternative apprenticeship route,’ Brannan said. ‘That’s what underpins apprenticeships: it unlocks the training contract bottleneck and it gives universities the flexibility to use their own expertise to develop a system that works for students and employers.’

Asked how SQE would deliver savings for aspiring solicitors, Brannan replied: ‘We’ll no longer require people to take specific qualifications, everyone knows the LPC in particular is a very expensive course. The freedoms we’re opening up means universities can incorporate SQE preparation into their degree programmes, if they wish, and even if they don’t, we anticipate that any preparation will be shorter than the LPC. So there are cost savings there.’

‘The main issue,’ she added, ‘was not so much the cost of qualification but value for money. What people are bothered by is value for money in terms of people who take the LPC and never get anywhere with it. These reforms address “he LPC gamble”, because the pure assessment costs in SQE1 will be cheaper. Even SQE2, which is expected to be more expensive, will likely be taken after the work experience period, and candidates who pass then become qualified. So there’s value for money there.’

The funding model for apprenticeships would be the main driver for change, Brannan suggested: ‘Apprenticeships will be a big change in the way people will qualify and it carries a different funding model. There’s a lot of interest among law firms to change their recruitment models to apprenticeships partly because of that: funding for apprenticeships covers both the cost of tuition and of assessment, so people who come through that route will get that cost funded through the apprenticeship levy.’

Another benefit for law student would be to capitalise on training gained at law clinics run by their universities. A growing number of universities already offer this as an option. Also gaining in popularity are ‘sandwich degrees’ where students take a year out during the course to get practical experience in law firms. At present, such valuable experience doesn’t count towards qualification, but policy director Crispin Passmore said ‘allowing that year to count towards the practical experience requirement would immediately reduce the cost of qualification’.

‘The danger at the moment is that kind of degree tends to be seen as a second-class route, whereas if you have a central examination that everybody goes through, then the marks speak for themselves – whatever route you go through, you go through the same assessment, and if you do well, you do well. That’s good for flexibility and for social mobility too.’

Would there be a risk that larger employers such as City firms continued to recruit from more prestigious universities? ‘It’s hard for employers to find the really talented people they want’, responded Passmore. ‘They know that if they recruit from certain university they should find enough of them, and they talk about trying to find nuggets of gold in other places but it’s hard to identify them. A central assessment would allow them to spot those people from cohorts with different backgrounds.

‘City firms are already looking at how this will allow them to recruit and train differently, and think not just about the core competencies about what makes a solicitor but about the additional skills that they can incorporate into their training programme, both before qualification but also during their professional lives. The approach is much more about life-long learning, allowing firms to tailor their education to suit their business and their clients.’

The new super-exam will require candidates to have a degree or equivalent qualification – or equivalent experience measured by reference to current higher education equivalence standards, which provide an existing framework to validate skills gained outside legal practice.

Wannabe lawyers will take a series of multiple choice test at stages 1 and 2, and will need to have ‘a substantial period of work experience’ of at least two years, although not necessarily in one block or with the same organisation. Traditional training contracts will count, but so will working as a paralegal or in a clinic as part of a sandwich degree. Requirements as to character and suitability will remain.

As to the structure of the SQE, stage 1 will test ‘functioning legal knowledge’ across six core areas: professional conduct, administrative law and the legal system; dispute resolution in contract and tort; property law; commercial and corporate law; wills, trusts, and estate administration; and criminal law. There will also be a separate assessment for legal research and writing.

Stage 2 will cover five types of practical legal skills: client interviewing; advocacy and communication; case and matter analysis; legal research and written advice; and legal drafting. Each will be assessed twice in the same two contexts chosen from five areas: crime, dispute resolution, property, private client, and commercial practice.

The two SQE stages are the parts of the reforms that the SRA said it had received the highest number of comments. Most of these were ‘high level’ and Brannan said the regulator will take these into account as it develops its proposed model further, looking particularly at skills and advocacy testing.

The next few weeks will see a new consultation on the wording of the SQE regulations, to be followed by a consultation on transition arrangements later in the year.

The assessment framework will be drawn up jointly between the SRA and an external organisation, with the regulator then setting the standards. This should be in place by early 2018 at the latest, giving the SRA two years to test and refine the structure further, with a launch date of September 2020 – a year later than in the original consultation.

The current thinking is that those who’ve started to train before that date – law students, LPC students and trainees – will be able to complete their qualification within the existing system.

Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief at Solicitors Journal

jean-yves.gilg@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @jeanyvesgilg

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