Exam prep: Getting ready for the SQE
The SQE transition period gives firms vital time to prepare for their future training policies, as Andrew Chadwick explains
The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has been on the horizon for many years and finally, on 1 September this year, the new regime will come into force.
As is well-known, a transition period will kick in, enabling anyone who is already studying on one of the currently prescribed routes to qualification to continue on that route. A few individuals may be tempted to sit the first SQE, which will take place in November. Most will prefer to qualify under the tried and tested routes still open to them.
Many law firms have yet to decide how they will want to train their people, not only for the SQE but also for the knowledge and skills their future workforce will need, but which do not form part of the SQE syllabus.
Those firms already decided have, for the most part, opted to delay their first experience of the SQE for a year or two. In the immediate term, the Legal Practice Course (LPC) will remain the preferred option.
As a concept, the SQE has been much debated by graduate recruitment and learning and teaching teams for some time. Many firms contributed to the consultations put out by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
Firms now face the reality of getting to grips with what the SQE will mean in practice for a number of areas of their activity, including:
- Graduate recruitment;
- Educating the talent to pass the new centralised assessments;
- Preparing them for practice; and
- How (if at all) they plan to evolve their established training contracts into qualifying work experience (QWE).
If firms have not already decided what to do, the transition period does afford firms time to get to grips with their preparations for the SQE. In my view, this breaks down into a number of key steps.
Qualifying work experience
It may seem counterintuitive to consider QWE as a starting point, but I think this is a sensible place to start. For almost three decades, firms have employed trainees to undertake a training contract.
Firms have organised contracts in their own particular ways, with a clear vision of what tasks their trainees will perform; how trainees will develop over the two years; and, importantly, what skills and knowledge they will be equipped with at the start, having studied the LPC.
Given the flexibility afforded by the changes, firms will be able to reorganise the training of future solicitors (trainees) if they wish.
The first question is: does the firm want a new approach to the training period? If so, what? If so, why? What will firms require their trainees to do? And what skills and knowledge will they need to be able to carry out these tasks from day one?
Understanding the SQE
The SQE is a fundamental change. With the exception of the apprenticeship route, there is no longer any prescription in terms of the education which an SQE candidate has to do. Instead, entry to the profession will be granted if the individual passes the SQE and completes QWE.
Those who employ trainees need to understand what the SQE will test, how the assessments will run and how different the SQE is to the current regime. In simple terms, a wide range of legal knowledge and the application of that knowledge will be assessed by way of 360 multiple choice questions in SQE1, followed by 16 skills assessments in SQE2.
Although the knowledge being tested in the SQE will be wide, it goes nowhere near many of the specialist practice areas which are fundamental to the practices of many firms.
Answering multiple choice questions is very different to being a legal practitioner. This means many of the skills and behaviours (to say nothing of the knowledge) developed during the LPC could be missing if an individual starts a period of QWE having done no training beyond cramming for and passing the SQE (or perhaps only the first part of the SQE).
Having a clear picture of what the firm needs from its trainees, and understanding the fundamental difference between the LPC and the SQE, enables the firm to go into a more detailed analysis of how it will deal with the future.
This part splits into three main stages:
- Deciding on what education the trainees need;
- Deciding how this could be delivered (and by whom); and
- Planning for implementation.
Educational Needs – There are many questions which need to be addressed here. Of fundamental importance is: does the practice want the trainee to be equipped with more than test preparation for SQE?
If yes, what are the additional knowledge and skills required by the firm? If pure test prep is enough, how will the firm educate stakeholders that trainees will be different in terms of the knowledge and skills than the practice is accustomed to? How will QWE be reorganised to accommodate this?
There are further questions: will the additional training be outsourced, or will some or all be delivered inhouse? If done inhouse, how will the QWE be arranged to accommodate this? What is the true cost/benefit analysis?
Procurement – Procurement can take time; and in the absence of any prescription by the regulator, it will mean providers are able to offer a range of alternatives. Firms must question potential providers carefully and in depth.
If something seems too good to be true – either in terms of cost or time commitment – it probably is. If all training is to be delivered inhouse as an alternative, then the detailed programme design must be complete in time for delivery at the chosen point.
Implementation – Switching from one regime to another can be difficult. I know from my many discussions with firms that working out what they will need to do and when they need to do it is causing many a headache.
Most leading firms recruit two years in advance – and so will be engaging with candidates up to three years in advance. This means that materials for graduate recruitment need to be sourced before then. How does the firm explain to future trainees what its policies will be if they have not yet been determined?
When exam dates for the SQE have not (at the time of writing) been set beyond the first sit, it is even more difficult to plan. A good starting point for firms is to look at the trainee journey currently used by the firm – including timelines; be clear as to when they would like trainees to start QWE; and then ask their education provider to work out the detail for them.
As firms emerge from the pandemic, they face challenges on several fronts. While navigating their route to the SQE and QWE may not be the most pressing, aspiring entrants to the profession will be keenly following the approach each firm takes as they prepare for recruitment rounds.
Andrew Chadwick is the dean of BPP University Law School bpp.com