A City response to the SQE proposal
Ruth Grant and Viola Joseph ‘fear that part one of the SQE will not test to a high enough standard’
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is proposing to change ?how solicitors qualify – and ?its proposals are radical. ?The plan is to introduce a uniform approach for everyone, ?called the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE), which will encompass two sets of tests with multiple choice assessments of legal knowledge, followed by some practical skills exams.
Everyone would need to pass the tests to qualify as a solicitor: law graduates, barristers (although there is some confusion over this), overseas lawyers, and those without a degree – there are no exemptions except as mandated by EU law. And, if workplace experience is retained, assessment of trainees’ performance to enable them to qualify is likely to become more burdensome.
We support what the SRA is seeking to do, which is to offer open access to the profession for all and set a minimum standard that everyone must reach. ?But we have major concerns about the proposals.
We fear that part 1 of the SQE will not test to a high enough standard and that part 2 ?will cause disruption to firms’ practices. More generally, we fear the proposals will damage the reputation of solicitors, both with domestic and international consumers. Clients (in England and Wales or beyond) have a choice of legal advisers available to them, and if standards of entry appear to have lowered, all solicitors will be affected.
We are also concerned that ?the proposed SRA tests – set at graduate level, lower than the postgraduate level of the current system – will not ensure that a newly qualified solicitor is able to practise safely.
One of a lawyer’s key skills is the ability to analyse facts and build an argument, which is more difficult than spotting the correct answer from a set of choices. Multiple-choice testing of knowledge tends to focus on areas of certainty, but solicitors need to be able to provide practical advice to clients, especially when the law is unclear or evolving. Only the qualified lawyers transfer scheme, which ?is for lawyers already qualified ?in another jurisdiction, relies on multiple-choice testing presently.
The new testing is also likely ?to lead to training that is less relevant to practice, as the proposed tests focus on generic content and reserved activities.
The overall cost of the SQE looks set to be high (several thousand pounds for the tests alone, bearing in mind part 2 ?will include role playing and one-to-one assessment in multiple contexts) although no figure has been put forward by the SRA to date. If firms wish ?to have trainees prepared for client work at their current ?level, it’s very likely there will be additional costs. New training providers may become established to offer the minimum level of training needed to pass the SQE but not offer the quality of training firms require. That could prejudice the people the reforms are designed to help: those who pay to study, without the support of firms, and those who do not realise skills above and beyond the SQE will need to be demonstrated.
Many firms may struggle to offer experience in the required minimum number of specified areas for the proposed part 2 tests. In any event, trainees’ exposure to each skill in each ?seat may vary. So, firms may need to pay for additional training courses and allow their trainees time away from the office to study and prepare ?for the tests. The disruption to firms and the implications for resourcing client work could ?be significant. And some firms may decide it is not worth ?having trainees.
And what happens if a trainee fails a part 2 test and can’t qualify ‘on time’? How will a firm handle the unexpected reduction in resource and the uncertainty? How frequently will the tests be offered to enable re-takes?
Planning for new trainee intakes will also be more complex; different candidates may have reached different stages of the SQE, unlike now, when trainees join having completed their exams. Some may have passed elements of part 1 during their law degrees. Others will have completed law degrees but not started part 1 and will need refresher training – perhaps an additional few months. Non-law graduates will, as now, require more detailed legal academic training. Will firms need to introduce additional starting dates during the year (with a potential impact on seat-move dates, too), or will some students have to wait longer, so that they start work with the rest of their intake? Again, we are concerned this could be particularly difficult ?for non-traditional candidates and so harm diversity.
We would like the proposals ?to provide for rigorous testing ?of analytical skills and to offer exemptions for law graduates, ?to avoid wasted costs, and repeated training. We also ?feel the postgraduate level ?for qualification should be maintained. If a uniform examination is needed, we would prefer this to take place at an earlier stage so that trainees can continue to be fully prepared for practice when they join and for the increasing specialism of ?a solicitor’s career.