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SRA proposes regulator-controlled gateway for entry into the profession

Consultation planned following concerns over inconsistencies across legal education providers

7 December 2015

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Plans for a solicitors qualifying examination, or SQE, are to be consulted on in the new year as the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) looks to open up new routes to qualification and boost diversity within the profession.

Under the SRA's proposals, anybody wishing to qualify as a solicitor must take the same competency assessment regardless of their training route. This applies to those undertaking apprenticeships, the graduate diploma in law (GDL), and those persisting with the traditional undergraduate/legal practice court (LPC) pathway.

In designing the new exam, the regulator told SJ it had taken inspiration from a number of sectors and assessments, both past and present, such as the old Law Society's Final Examination (LSF), scrapped in 1993,and from several jurisdictions, such as the New York Bar exam.

'We also looked very closely at some of the ways other professions are assessed, particularly medics,' explained the SRA's Julie Brannan. 'Some of the assessment methods are a lot more sophisticated than we currently use and this is an opportunity for us to bring legal assessment up to best practice in other sectors.'

The regulator's director of education and training said the assessment might be modularised to allow candidates more time to complete it.

'There would be two parts to the assessment,' added Brannan. 'There would be a knowledge test and a series of skills tests. The knowledge test would cover the sort of things students study in their law degree, GDL, or LPC. Once they felt they were ready to take that assessment, they could prepare themselves for the test.'

While the skills element would cover exams such as advocacy, research, legal writing, and drafting, it would not, however, be set at the pass level used by LPC providers. Instead the SRA test would assess a candidate's ability on the basis of having already reached the end of their training contract.

'We want to check that candidates could really go out into the real world and do a competent client interview,' remarked Brannan. 'We would expect candidates to have some real life experience of undertaking interviews under supervision, or writing letters, drafting documents, and so on.'

In theory, the new assessment would do away with the current 'tri-partite' stages of academic, professional, and workplace training currently imposed on law students.

'There might be opportunities for those to be integrated,' observed Brannan. 'The LPC elements might be able to be integrated into the law degree. The practical training might be able to be integrated into classroom teaching. That could suit some people better and improve the way law is taught.'

Brannan added: 'I'm always very struck that most law students will learn cases about contract law and three or four years later they might see a contract for the first time and then separately they learn how to sue on a contract. Potentially this gives the opportunity for those elements to be integrated better and potentially education and training to be improved.'

High standards

SRA board member Martin Coleman told SJ that the proposals were about ensuring the high standards expected of solicitors in England and Wales were maintained.

'While we have many very good institutions offering law degrees and professional training, there is no standard basis on which to measure the quality of students who emerge from that process,' said Coleman.

'We know that some LPC providers have success rates in excess of 90 per cent, others are below 50 per cent. Some graduate law schools require A and A* for entry, others admit students with B, C, and D grades.'

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has found that the current quality assessment system in higher education does not provide direct assurance about the standard of awards made to students or their comparability.

'HEFCE, which oversees these things, can't give any assurance about the output of law degrees,' stated Coleman. 'When we look at the GDL, fewer than 1 per cent of full-time students fail. If we look at training contracts, only 2 per cent of those are not admitted. You add to that mix the new paths to qualification, such as apprenticeships, and this is overseen by various providers.'

Coleman added: 'We have 104 institutions offering undergraduate law degrees, 33 offering GDL, 26 offering LPC and over 2,000 firms offering traineeships. We are a little bit concerned about the lack of a common basis for assessing the quality of output from those bodies. You need a mechanism to ensure standards on different pathways are comparable.'

Finger pointing

The Norton Rose lawyer was at pains to stress that the regulator's concern was 'consistency of output' and that it was important for the public to have confidence in the competence of every qualifying solicitor.

'‘We’re not pointing the finger at anybody. What we are saying is that it is not possible to measure consistency across the board and when one's looking at entry into professions. The multiplicity of providers means that measuring or ensuring consistency is a challenge.'

With law students having to contend with a reduction in available training contracts, and an already oversaturated talent pool, as well as high education fees from certain training institutions, it is arguable that the SRA should be doing more to fix the market.

'It's for us to protect consumers of legal services to make sure that people who qualify have the right ability to be safe practitioners, and if those competencies can be acquired from lots of different ways, we shouldn't be saying that one is better than others,' said Brannan.

'It's not for us to provide quotas on those entering the market. People who have the aptitude and the ability to practise as solicitors should be given the opportunity to do that,' she continued.

Chancery Lane criticism

The regulator said it is focused on ensuring that 'able people', regardless of 'background or personal characteristics', have as few barriers as possible to traverse when seeking entry to the profession.

'While the SQE is about the final assessment, once we have a common assessment, it then becomes much easier to develop a number of different pathways so that a broader range of people have the opportunity to go down those pathways with a view to qualifying,' added Coleman.

However, the SRA's plans have already come under criticism from the Law Society, which claimed removal of the already approved pathways carries a significant risk of adversely affecting less-advantaged students who have no access to contacts in the profession, or to the best-informed sources of careers advice.

The regulator has rebuffed this accusation, arguing that the introduction of a standard assessment would level the playing field and increase diversity in the profession.

'It enables people who have qualified through the apprenticeship route, or through new routes we may not yet know about, to demonstrate they are equivalent of people who have come through traditional routes to qualification,' said Brannan.

'At the university level it is the same thing,' added Coleman. 'Whatever university you have gone to, it means you are not judged on the basis of where you did the degree, but on the basis of your performance in the competency examination. That does help level the playing field.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD

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