SQE: Avoiding a two-tier profession
The new super-exam should help deal with the LPC gamble and put the profession within the reach of many, says Alex Hawley
In the interests of full disclosure: for the same amount of money I have spent post-18 gaining my degree and qualifying as a solicitor, I could have bought the house in which I was born mortgage-free, with plenty to spare. I would rather work in the profession I love, but buying the house would not have involved the equivalent one-in-five training contract ‘gamble’. And, in the current system, I would not even have the choice to make without innate privilege, access to the ‘bank of mum and (grand)dad’, and LPC funding from my firm.
I mention this because far too many of my peers took the same gamble and ended up with neither. They now find themselves stuck in repeated paralegal posts with promised training contracts rarely materialising, or, after some years in limbo, have followed other career paths with their LPC proving an extremely expensive entry in the ‘other skills and qualifications’ section of their CV.
Even more numerous are those for whom this perfect storm of cost and risk currently proves an absolute barrier to entry. Many could borrow the upfront costs of training, but it is the fact the current system offers only an uncertain reward that makes the profession inaccessible. The consequence of losing the ‘LPC gamble’ for some is perhaps disgruntled parents and a few years chalked up to experience, whereas for most the debt and opportunity cost would be life-changing.
For this reason, I welcome the SQE because as well as standardising assessment, it crucially offers increased certainty that money spent will result in qualification if the candidate meets the grade. Although I hope the cost can be kept to less than that of an LPC, even if the fees were the same it is the reduction in risk, and the ability to earn in a relevant role while studying, which will put the profession within the reach of many. This can only be a step forward for meritocratic access to the profession and diversity.
I do share concerns that, if executed poorly, the SQE will leave NQs less prepared for practice than the existing route. However, as long as a minimum standard is met, the reality is that for many this comparison draws a false equivalence, as the existing route was simply never an option. In my view, given the magnitude of the barrier the LPC gamble presents, offering even an imperfect shot at the profession for those who are currently excluded is better than offering no chance at all.
However, implicit within this set of priorities is the real danger of creating a two-tiered profession, with the privileged, risk-taking and/or debt-laden LPC-ers retaining the top posts, and the SQE-ers languishing below, less rigorously qualified. It is surely within the gift of the SRA, training providers, and firms together to ensure now that the SQE syllabus is taxing and industry-focused enough to minimise or eliminate the divide.
Even if this is achieved, it may still be that firms retain the tried and tested LPC and training contract, ironically, in the interests of certainty. To do so, however, would be an opportunity missed to genuinely widen access to a profession that is beyond the reach of most, and to take a larger step forward for diversity than any committee initiative could achieve.
Alex Hawley is an associate at Penningtons Manches