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Chris Howard

University Partnerships Director, BARBRI Global

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While beyond facilitating initial qualification, academic institutions must also focus on nurturing the skills essential for future-proofing careers in law

Paving the way for change: why universities are adapting to the SQE

Opinion
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Paving the way for change: why universities are adapting to the SQE

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Chris Howard, University Partnerships Director at BARBRI, looks at the opportunities presented by the Solicitors Qualifying Exam and the importance of a rich variety of routes into the profession

With the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), the legal qualification landscape is undergoing a seismic shift. Aiming to create a level playing field for those looking to qualify, the SQE provides a more cost-effective route compared to the Legal Practice Course (LPC), while standardising the process for improved consistency across the board.

The challenges

This can benefit individual legal practitioners, firms, in-house teams and those that the profession serves. Yet despite the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) intentions to foster a more diverse talent pool, in these early stages of the SQE’s introduction, the legal sector remains affected by a lack of socio-economic diversity and has been hailed as one of the least socioeconomically diverse sectors in the UK. Data from the SRA confirms this trend, with the proportion of lawyers from lower socio-economic backgrounds noticeably declining, from 21% in 2015 to 18% in 2023. While the pass rates attainment gap also remains a key concern across the industry, with white candidates continuing to outperform black, Asian and other minority candidates.

There’s a substantial challenge ahead if the sector wants to truly improve diversity through the SQE, and the introduction of this ‘super exam’ alone won’t suffice to address it. Instead, there is a need for comprehensive support across the sector to effect real change.

Universities have recognised the need to pivot, and some institutions have already taken proactive steps by adapting their law programmes to align with the SQE. Collaborations between universities and specialist SQE providers have emerged, offering SQE preparation alongside academic studies, notably at the postgraduate level, as exemplified by initiatives at King’s College London. This approach ensures that aspiring lawyers are equipped with essential SQE knowledge and are well-versed in the MCT assessment methodology, well before graduation, streamlining their path to qualification.

Work experience

This is further bolstered by the introduction of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE), which replaces the traditional training contract model that has become known as a bottleneck for talent. Instead, the QWE requirement must be fulfilled over two years in up to four relevant placements, offering candidates greater flexibility in regard to timing and access to opportunities, therefore paving the way for a more diverse range of talent to enter the profession. Firms and legal teams can access upcoming talent during this time, helping to plug the talent gap across the industry, while aspiring solicitors can practically apply the theoretical knowledge and skills that they are learning. Some universities are now working to connect the dots and have seized this opportunity to partner with law firms and in-house legal teams to enable students to gain valuable industry experience alongside their studies, with models including placement years, such as the Queen Mary University of London Law in Practice degree option.

Apprenticeships

This model is notably not dissimilar to degree apprenticeships, although these are still considered a disruptive concept in the legal sphere. Yet degree apprenticeships hold immense promise for broadening access to legal education and the profession, with 1,300 legal apprentices recorded in 2023. Although not yet universally available, they offer a pragmatic way forward for universities, especially when appealing to the 35% of young people who are now reconsidering whether they will attend university in the future. Some universities have already set the wheels in motion. For example, Queen Mary University of London is beginning to develop a degree apprenticeship programme, underpinned by BARBRI’s SQE technology.

Data from the SRA shows that apprentices continue to perform well via the SQE, with more than 100 apprentices taking the SQE between September 2021 and August 2022, with marks that were 8% higher, on average, than non-apprentices. Not only does this make it a viable option for improved diversity across the profession, but it also has the potential to shift the attainment gap trends we are currently seeing. However, academic institutions must actively engage with regulators to ensure that degree apprenticeships in the legal sector align with industry and individual needs if they are to truly make an impact.

New skills

While beyond facilitating initial qualification, academic institutions must also focus on nurturing the skills essential for future-proofing careers in law. This includes AI and LawTech which are becoming highly valued by firms of all sizes, particularly SME law firms, 69% of whom consider AI and automation knowledge the most sought-after skillset, according to the latest research from BARBRI. The evolving landscape now demands a blend of technical expertise and soft skills, a balance that necessitates lifelong learning and adaptability, with the innovative King’s College London MSc in Law & Professional Practice being a prime example of this.

In responding to the opportunities presented by the SQE, academic institutions can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of legal education and practice. Embracing these changes is imperative for staying ahead in a rapidly evolving profession.

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