SQE: The diversity enabler that's coming too late
Will the â€˜super exam' reinforce the solicitor brand or will the lines between regulated lawyers continue to blur?
The rationale behind the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) to increase the profession’s diversity has found support among lawyers but many already wonder whether the proposals are coming too late.
‘I’m a big fan of social mobility and my concern with legal education is the expense that’s incurred,’ says , partner at Lancashire firm Joseph A. Jones. Rycroft and his brother were the first in the family to go to university and had their fees paid for, and Lancashire county council paid for his legal practice course (LPC).
‘I had a free education,’ he says. ‘It was great for me and great for all the others who were able to do that. There is now a major barrier to entry into the profession. This has resulted in most lawyers being of same ilk. Is this what we want? No, we want lawyers to represent their communities.’
Most smaller practices like Rycroft’s four-partner firm are usually unable to fund training contracts. If there is work in the firm, they’re more likely to hire paralegals and then encourage them to train up and to gradually qualify rather than fund a trainee through their education. So, as much as Rycroft shares the SRA’s concern about diversity, he is unsure whether SQE will make a difference in practice. ‘Lawyers find ways around the system and that’s how a lot of smaller firms have been recruiting their trainees, employing them as paralegals and seeing how they perform and fit in with the firm.’
Work-based training essential
For many, this practical aspect is an essential part of a solicitor’s training. The SRA’s earlier consultation on SQE was unclear about the extent and length. The suggestion now is that there is likely to be requirement for a minimum 24 months’ work-based experience before candidates can take the Stage Two exam.
SJ regular and clinical negligence specialist Richard Barr has welcomed the move. Barr qualified under the ‘five-year rule’ in the 1970s, a system with which the proposed SQE shares many similarities. At the time, there was no requirement for a degree at all and no such thing as the legal practice course. Instead, aspiring solicitors found a firm willing to take them on as articled clerks and train them. Wages were low – there was no minimum trainee salary and Barr himself was paid £5 a week – and in some cases articled clerks had to pay for the privilege of being trained.
‘Law is so much more than statutes, regulations, and cases,’ he says. ‘It’s about coping with difficult clients and colleagues, bluffing, developing the art of effective advocacy (and that is needed just as much outside court as in it), turning effort into money, and reaching the end of a hard day without actually punching someone in the face.’
Tackling rising LPC costs
The high cost of entry is also an issue for Gill Garrett, partner and director of finance and business support at 17-partner Hertfordshire-based firm SA Law. ‘It concerns me that graduates are having to defer doing the LPC to try to earn money to pay for it, on top of paying back their student loans.
‘We have noticed over the last few years that most of the applications we have for training contracts come from graduates who have been either paralegals or have worked in other employment areas. The age of trainees starting their training contracts has increased by about three years.’
Garrett’s firm already has an apprenticeship scheme in place, which they promote to schools and colleges in their area, but she says the SQE approach should improve access further. ‘The new examination is good but obviously there is still a way to go before this is implemented. This will help all candidates but particularly those who have found the funding for them personally to be a real challenge.’
Whether the LPC should be retained at all has been a key question for some time. The implication in the latest SQE proposal is that the LPC would not be part of the qualification process but the SRA is yet to confirm it will scrap it altogether. The way the degree is administered has long attracted suspicion, with the pass rate varying from 50 per cent to 100 per cent depending on the institution, and the award of distinctions not always acting as a reliable differentiator.
‘The LPC is no longer a suitable indicator,’ says Sharon Montgomery, family law partner at Crane & Staples. Montgomery, who is responsible for training at the seven-partner firm, broadly supports the SQE approach. ‘We initially looked at distinctions to select our trainees but it became clear that this didn’t give any indication of somebody’s ability to work in a law firm environment.’ Montgomery doesn’t want to minimise the value or effort required in obtaining a distinction but she says that it’s enough to ‘slog hard’ to get one.
‘So we started getting people to work in the office with us for a while, on summer or long-term placements. Mostly we get in law graduates – but not just – and give them non-client facing work such as preparing documents or undertaking research. It allows us to see how they interact, how organised and punctual they are. We can’t fund LPCs but we’ve given training contracts to a few, and one has now qualified here as a solicitor.’
In practice, however, there are still unanswered practical questions, starting with the content of the exam and the proposed centralised process. ‘The important question is not who sets the exam but what the content is; what aspiring solicitors are being tested on rather than how the process is administered,’ says Russell-Cooke associate Michael Stacey.
However, while Stacey agrees the new scheme could be an enabler for greater plurality in routes to qualification, he expects his firm will continue to take the bulk of its newly qualified solicitors through the traditional route.
‘Academic rigour is important to us and a good degree provides that grounding, but we recognise there is a place for alternative routes to qualification, particularly in terms of social inclusion given the increasing costs of higher education,’ he adds. ‘For our firm it could be a route for people to qualify who’ve had work experience in law and want to progress to qualification.’
For Stacey, changes in the professional environment should also be acknowledged. ‘Qualifying as a solicitor is less important for some people these days. There was a drive to qualify or convert because there was a degree of snobbery in respect of non-solicitors. These days, extended rights for other regulated lawyers are blurring the distinction with solicitors.
‘On the other hand, SQE could reinforce the solicitor brand by providing assurances that those who’ve passed stages one and two have met stringent criteria.’
Jean-Yves Gilg is editor in chief of Solicitors Journal