How firms and law schools could work together in the new SQE era
New routes to qualification as a solicitor will have a major impact on law firms' recruitment strategies, says Jackie Panter
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has changed their training regulations. Of relevance here are the recognised steps to becoming licensed as a solicitor, together with the knowledge and skills.
This means that the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will start in Autumn 2021 and the SRA will no longer require students to study a Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) or Common Professional Examination (CPE).
How will this impact the graduate route to qualification as a solicitor? The SRA has a statutory duty to ensure that those who are licensed as solicitors have the knowledge and skills necessary to be admitted to the roll.
The SRA specifies the knowledge and skills required to become admitted, while also prescribing and regulating the academic programmes of learning for the development of these skills.
Currently, the route to qualification taken by most students is to study for a qualifying law degree, before completing the LPC and training contract.
Alternatively, a graduate can complete the CPE, also called the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), followed by the LPC and training contract.
These routes are prescribed by the SRA, which also authorises the institutions that can provide a qualifying law degree or CPE.
This will fundamentally change with the introduction of the SQE. The SQE will mean there will be only two routes to qualification as a solicitor.
One, being a graduate, successfully passing the SQE and completing a period of work-based learning. The other, completing a solicitor apprenticeship and successfully passing the SQE at the end of that apprenticeship.
As things stand, most solicitors are law graduates, or graduates from another discipline who have successfully completed the CPE.
The SRA has prescribed large parts of the content in the QLD and the CPE, which are the foundations of legal knowledge.
The subjects this covers are contract, tort, public law, crime, land, equity and trusts and the European Union. There are 120 providers of the QLD and 33 providers of the CPE who are recognised by the SRA, which provides a level of consistency in the knowledge content from those institutions.
There are, of course, differences at each institution such as the length of the programme, ranging from a two-year accelerate law degree. Additional content may range from joint honours in other subjects, to law or non-law knowledge.
More than legal knowledge
A significant element of the QLD content is dominated by knowledge that is prescribed by the SRA. But a law degree is more than that.
The degree also develops legal skills, which includes how to use the law and how to practise the law. It’s about academic skills such as critical reading and research, persuasive writing and accurate citation, oral and written presentations.
It’s also about the development of a learner, allowing them to change and grow through their studies on an academic and personal basis while aiding the development of autonomy, self management, and teamwork.
Under the SQE regime, students will no longer need to study a QLD or CPE as the SRA will no longer specify the academic content of law degrees.
To pass the SQE, students will need the knowledge set out in the Statement of Legal Knowledge. That Legal Knowledge includes all of the foundation subjects, but also a much broader range of legal knowledge that solicitors are required to demonstrate at the point of qualification such as ethics and taxation.
Greater range of options
For law schools, the qualifying law degree has served the needs of two different types of learners – the law students who want to qualify into the legal profession and those who do not want to follow that career path.
Until now, the content of a qualifying law degree has been with reference to those prescribed foundation subjects. This will, in fact, remain the case for barristers. However, most law students do not progress down the barrister route.
Indeed, although most law students start their law degree with an aspiration to proceed into the legal profession, many do not do so.
As the prescription about a QLD and foundation subjects of law is removed by the SRA, this will be an opportunity for law schools to innovate their law degrees.
It will free up space in the law degree programme for a broader range of knowledge, skills and development of the learner without the prescription required for a qualifying law degree.
Crucially, it will allow more space in the law degree for a greater range of options in the degree content between providers.
The GDL will no longer be needed for qualification as a solicitor. Non-law graduates will not be required to study the CPE.
The GDL is likely to morph into a new programme of learning for the solicitors’ side of the legal profession – SQE preparation.
In the non-apprenticeship route, the new training regulations will require successful completion of the SQE by a graduate.
The GDL could move into an SQE preparation course for non-law graduates, but perhaps even law graduates.
There is a high risk that a SQE programme will lead to learners being trained for the exams rather than developed and educated about legal knowledge and skills. This is something for law firms to be aware of.
Differences in training
With the current low numbers of solicitor apprentices, in the medium term at least, most future solicitors will be graduates, coming from Higher Education.
Those graduates will have had a fairly similar education and consistency in the development of their legal knowledge and skills.
With the introduction of the SQE, in the medium term, firms recruiting for a solicitor can choose graduates from the traditional prescribed law degree or CPE route, or the forthcoming SQE route.
SQE programmes, like the exams themselves, are still under development, so that there are still many unknowns. Keeping those developments on the radar, to inform recruitment strategies and careers advice, is key.
In the medium term, recruitment strategies need to be refined and adapted for recruitment from the SQE route.
This could be a seismic change. Graduates, even law graduates, could have manifestly different knowledge, skills and training from their programmes of learning, to an extent that is not currently the case.
A further, great unknown, is the impact that the new route will have on improving equality and diversity. A driver for these changes is the cost to reach qualification as a solicitor.
The cost of reaching qualification under the new SQE graduate route is unclear, but it is unlikely to be manifestly different (and could be more) than the current graduate and LPC route.
This is a great opportunity for collaboration between higher education institutions and law firms. Engagement is key – dialogue from employers about the content of future law degrees – more or different legal content, skills or other training and development to meet the needs of the workforce.
Jackie Panter is interim head of Manchester Law School mmu.ac.uk