SQE: costly discrimination
The JLD supports the concept of the SQE but is yet to be convinced that it will create a fair playing field for all, says James Kitching
Since the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) announced plans to revamp how solicitors qualify, the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has actively questioned and challenged the process to ensure it is fit for purpose; maintains the high professional standards the legal system of England and Wales is renowned for; and promotes social mobility, equality and diversity.
Fundamentally, the JLD supports the concept behind the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). A centralised examination is an opportunity to provide a fairer means to qualify as a solicitor.
Under the current system of higher education, candidates are very much reliant on the claims of universities as to the excellence of the courses they offer. With the introduction of a centralised exam, candidates will be able to see whether the top universities offer it; and law firms will have to justify their recruitment processes.
It will be easier to hold them to account for selecting just those from Oxbridge or Russell Group Universities, as opposed to those that are genuinely the best and brightest candidates.
The SQE also presents an opportunity to create a less financially onerous system for those entering law. Currently, students are not only expected to take on the financial debt of a three-year undergraduate course at university but also have to fund the Legal Practitioners Course (LPC).
This leaves a lot of law graduates in an awkward position. Aside from those securing training contracts with LPC funding, some are able to get a loan covering the cost of the LPC, but this means incurring debt – with the risk of never securing a training contract.
Meanwhile many candidates are left in limbo, unsure whether to take on the financial risk of the LPC in the hope of eventually obtaining a training contract; or hold out until a training contract is secured before committing.
Their decision isn’t helped by law firms being less inclined to offer training contacts to candidates who may fail the LPC. By scrapping the LPC, costs are lowered and by having a two-part exam, candidates are able to hold off committing to SQE2 and the associated costs – until they know their career is secure. It provides a fairer playing field for all.
Except it doesn’t. The problem is, the SQE provides too much flexibility. A problem with the current system is (understandably) law firms not wanting to commit to candidates who may fail qualifying exams.
Under the current format for the SQE, there’s no requirement to complete qualifying work experience (QWE) before taking SQE2 so City firms have already suggested they will require future trainees to complete both parts of the SQE before being able to start QWE.
This is not just because they are wary of candidates failing SQE2 but because (again, understandably) they want to ensure candidates have proven themselves to have written and practical skills (which SQE2 tests) and not just legal knowledge (which SQE1 tests). If these firms follow through on such a policy, it means candidates will need to find a way to prepare themselves for SQE2 – which will mean some form of training course, and additional costs.
Instead of ushering in lower training costs, the big concern is they will increase. We’re looking at the same situation as before, where those who can afford it progress and those who can’t have to roll the dice – hoping that a gamble on debt pays off (or walk away without rolling the dice).
It creates a two-tier system. But there’s a simple solution: make it a requirement that SQE2 can only be completed once the QWE has been signed off. This doesn’t necessarily help law firms ensure candidates have all the necessary skills, but it does put the impetus on them to train the candidates – which is the case in accountancy and with the solicitor apprentice route.
Flexibility is great and we should be providing a less rigid route to the profession. However, there also needs to be suitable safeguards in place.
The SQE is an opportunity for the SRA to provide a more level playing field for access to the profession. A fundamental revamp should be a system that stands the test of time. More time is needed to ensure a new approach maintains high professional standards.
James Kitching is a Law Society council member and sits on the JLD’s executive committee. He is a corporate lawyer at Womble Bond Dickinson womblebonddickinson.com