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SQE breathes fresh air into an age-old process

Practice Notes
SQE breathes fresh air into an age-old process


Is the legal sector fully prepared for Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) graduates?

At present, it appears that not all firms are sufficiently equipped to deal with the new process, which will lead to a knock-on effect for Newly Qualified solicitors (NQ) entering the profession via the SQE. The Legal Practice Course (LPC) and training contract process have existed since 1993 and are seen by many as the traditional route into a career as a solicitor. A key question is whether the legal sector is adapting quickly enough and can implement processes to ensure that SQE students are supported throughout their studies, enabling a seamless transition to their role as a NQ.

Training contracts offer different seats for a set amount of time with rotation, providing structure and experience in a variety of areas. Instead of a training contract, alongside the SQE students are now required to have obtained qualifying work experience, which can range from paralegal roles to voluntary work, potentially adding further pressure to an already intensive qualification.

The jump from a paralegal to a NQ cuts out the middleman, raising the question as to whether SQE students will be ready to so quickly step into the role of a NQ, since under the SQE system they may not have had sufficient exposure and experience to a variety of areas of the law before choosing their desired area to qualify into. The SQE is also phasing out the LPC ‘electives’, meaning that students cannot focus on a preferred area of law and firms do not have control over electives for their current trainees.

However, by switching to SQE, there is also a welcome sense of ‘out with the old and in with the new’. The SQE provides a breath of fresh air to a somewhat outdated process, allowing the profession to move with the times. It is cost-effective for both the student and the firm, whilst the qualifying work experience can include a variety of roles, such as paralegal work, working at law clinics and volunteering, thus widening the scope of experience. This structure also removes the uncertainty and pressure that students and paralegals face when trying to obtain a training contract under the LPC system. The SQE will also prove to be a quicker route to qualification, especially for those who have a wealth of qualifying work experience under their belt and can settle easily into being an NQ.

It is understood that some firms will continue to run two-year training contracts for SQE candidates as they do not want to completely remove the training phase. This retains elements of the traditional route, but it could also defeat the purpose of the new SQE route and the introduction of the qualifying work experience. An SQE candidate may have two years of qualifying work experience, but law firms may prefer the candidate to have undertaken a two-year training period with them. Does this therefore mirror the LPC route and prolong the SQE route that was supposed to expedite qualification and provide flexibility?

Law firms are not required to shorten the training period, even if the candidate has qualifying work experience. It appears there is a grey area as to what firms believe the qualifying work experience should be and whether this meets expectations. This will make it difficult for SQE candidates with qualifying work experience to apply for NQ solicitor roles at certain firms. At the same time, some firms will find it hard to move away from the training contract system as it has always been the case that the firm can monitor and tailor a trainee’s experience and learning when undertaking the usual training contract. This control may be lost in relation to SQE candidates with qualifying work experience but hopefully over time, firms can adapt to the changes.

The SQE route is inclusive as it is open to all graduates, not just law graduates or those who have carried out a law conversion course. This is positive in terms of not excluding non-law graduates, however by increasing the pool of SQE candidates there will be increased competition and pressure for NQ solicitor roles. As such, there may well turn out to be a shortage of jobs available to NQs as a result of the move to SQE, which in turn may deter future potential law candidates from pursuing a career in the profession.

Abigail Woodcock is a newly qualified solicitor at family law firm Lowry Legal