The SQE challenge: learning models fit for the new legal services' world
With the Solicitors Qualifying Examination going live in two years, now is the time for law firms and education providers to work together to deliver training that meets business needs, argues Jackie Panter
It was in 2011 when the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Bar Standards Board and Ilex Professional Standards announced the establishment of a joint fundamental review of legal education and training.
What was described as the “long awaited report” that followed was published in June 2013. It was intended to provide the regulators with the evidence they needed to make decisions on future education and training policy.
Fast forward to 2019 and the implementation of new routes to becoming a licensed solicitor are still a work in progress. What is the impact of this on law firms and education providers, with the ongoing move to the new routes to qualification?
What will change
Until now, the SRA have prescribed and regulated the traditional route to becoming a licensed solicitor.
It is currently the requirement of a qualifying law degree or GDL, LPC and completion of a training contract.
There have been some relatively minor regulatory changes in the last 10 years to provide some flexibility around those routes.
The SRA are now moving away from the current routes, prescribing programmes and regulating those prescribed programmes of learning in the journey to qualification.
Soon, to qualify as a solicitor, you must successfully pass the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) in one of two ways:
- Complete a Solicitor Apprenticeship and successfully pass the SQE at the end of that apprenticeship; or
- A graduate must successfully pass the SQE and complete a period of qualifying work experience.
The SQE will replace the current requirement of successfully completing a qualifying law degree or GDL, then LPC. It is important to note that the SQE is not a course. It is a series of exams in two broad parts:
- SQE 1 will assess legal knowledge and application. It will be a computer-based assessment with three papers of 120 multiple choice questions, all to be attempted in a single sitting, and a Practical Legal Skills Assessment in legal research and writing.
- SQE 2 will assess skills assessments. These assessments will be conducted by training actors and be marked by solicitors.
There are strong views about this new assessment. Some are still lobbying for the SQE to be withdrawn but this will be impossible.
The SQE is the approved end-point assessment for the Solicitor Apprenticeship. This means that the SQE, although a work in progress, is here to stay because of that Solicitor Apprenticeship route.
The SQE elements are still under design, undergoing revisions and pilot exercises. The first SQE 1 assessment will not be before Autumn 2021.
Impact on law firms
The legal services sector is undergoing unparalleled change. Significant changes in the law and processes, for example in civil litigation and legal aid, are impacting on the provision and delivery of traditional work.
New entrants, particularly alternative business structures, are creating new competition in the market.
The Solicitor Apprenticeship route is becoming established in the recruitment and training plans for some law firms.
It is particularly attractive to align recruitment and training plans with the Apprenticeship Levy and it will be three to four years until the first solicitors qualify through that route.
It will be fascinating to evaluate the experience of the firms and learners about this route in the coming years.
Right now, firms can make a strategic decision to continue to recruit trainees under the current route to qualification or revise recruitment policies for the 2021 SQE route.
This is the tried and tested LLB/GDL, LPC and training contract route and it could be a case of “better the devil you know”.
The strengths and weaknesses in this route are understood. On the other hand, it will be some time until the strengths and, perhaps, weaknesses of the new SQE route emerge.
Working with education providers
Law firms are reviewing their recruitment plans for the next five years while the SQE will not be available before Autumn 2021.
How long will a law firm’s recruitment strategy flow from the traditional LPC route? This is an opportunity for education providers and businesses to work together to transform learning and teaching to meet business needs.
Until now, a significant element of the form and content of the qualifying law degree, GDL and LPC has been the content and a need to satisfy the prescription determined by the regulator.
The move from prescribed programmes to reach qualification as a solicitor is significant for education providers. In the same way that law firms are adapting to changes in the market, education providers must do likewise.
There will be little or no sympathy for education providers. Regulatory changes and market forces are already having an impact on legal education.
The Solicitor Apprenticeship route does not require a degree so training providers who do not have degree awarding powers can lead programmes of learning in this route.
Some education providers have already left the GDL and LPC market following falling student numbers.
Law schools are now revising their programmes of learning. The SRA decision that a qualifying law degree or GDL are no longer a required element to becoming qualified as a solicitor is transformational and liberating.
The content of the law degree can meet more diverse learning, training and business needs of both knowledge and skills. Firms can also reflect on their own education and training needs to ensure that those needs can be met.
The SQE prescribes legal knowledge and legal skills. Market forces will inform the content, which in its crudest form will need to ensure that learners successfully pass the SQE.
However, the SQE is only assessing legal knowledge and legal skills. This is an opportunity for law firms and education providers to collaborate.
Firms can identify the gaps in knowledge, skills and attributes right now, such as legal tech and more commercial awareness, and the need for programmes to respond to those business needs. This will meet business needs now, but also planning for the needs in five years.
It is also broader in that merely reacting to the SRA changes the pathways to becoming licensed as a solicitor. Law firms are moving away from a framework of lawyers and support staff.
Different elements of the service provided to the client are being delivered by a range of lawyers with different titles and roles.
Collaboration between businesses and training providers can broaden to respond to the knowledge and skills need of that wide range of professional delivery.
It’s about a more holistic evaluation of education and training needs, rather than on a piecemeal approach, driven by role title.
New learning programmes
Between now and autumn 2021, with the huge changes to the pathways to becoming licensed, law firms and education providers can work together to create programme of learning and training that meet the needs of learners and the business needs.
These are great opportunities for law firms to evaluate their business and adapt recruitment strategies to meet their specific business need.
However, the move away from prescription to the training in legal education and market changes to the delivery of legal services also brings challenges.
Do all firms have the resources to unpick the impact of the new pathways to qualification, introduce support mechanisms for their soon to be solicitors and existing workforce, and collaborate with education providers for training that meets their business needs?
Large firms have systems and resources to respond to these changes. Their strategists decide on the business need for recruitment in different roles and through different routes, while HR advisers manage recruitment processes – examples of this include solicitor apprentices who are embarking on a five- or six-year apprenticeship, and training departments to support apprentices over that lengthy period.
But medium-sized and small firms too will need to evaluate the decisions about changes in the routes to qualification and how their recruitment and training strategies are geared up to respond to the changes that will impact on all firms.
Jackie Panter is interim head of Manchester Law School mmu.ac.uk