Time to speak up about the future of law
The SRA's latest consultation on SQE is progressive but key stakeholders must remain fully engaged, writes Helen Hudson
The strength of feeling expressed by stakeholders in responding to the first consultation on the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) must surely have concerned the SRA. Those responses were balanced and provided constructive and thoughtful feedback. The profession must respond similarly to this second consultation.
Some common themes emerged from the initial consultation. The lack of detail provided by the regulator on how it anticipated SQE would work worried practitioners, interest groups, and educators alike. The fact that the SRA has taken this on board and provided more detail on how SQE will operate is welcome.
The SRA has based its assessment framework on Millers Pyramid which is used extensively in relation to professional competence. The detailed assessment specification and the use of SQE Stages 1 and 2 are designed to take candidates through the various levels of the pyramid developing them from basic knowledge through to competent professionals at the point of qualification. The education rationale is well supported by research but how will it work in practice for qualification as a solicitor.
The regulator has now provided indicative routes to qualification which is a step forward. However, I remain sceptical as to whether a pupil considering a career in the law while making choices in year 11 or even earlier will fully understand what is required of them. Will careers advisers appreciate the different ways in which you can qualify as a solicitor? There will be a common assessment but what is the best way to prepare for it and, just as importantly, what will it cost? These are questions careers advisers will find difficult to answer.
As for cost, the SRA has still not said how much it intends to charge candidates taking SQE. If it's in addition to the existing requirements, then it is difficult to see how it can be less expensive on the whole. SQE Part 1 might be cheaper in its proposed format as multiple choice questions can be administered online. But it is hard to envisage how assessment of SQE Part 2 can be anything other than expensive to deliver and administer as it relies on standardised clients which will add to the cost.
Compared with the costs of the current qualified lawyers transfer scheme, the combined assessment is ultimately unlikely to be a cheaper option. Until we see figures from the SRA on the proposed cost we do not know what the financial impact the new exam will be and the consequent impact on equality and diversity.
Work-based learning is crucial for qualification as a solicitor. An assessment in professional competence education cannot be separated from the workplace where so much of professional method, attitudes and skills are learned. The SRA acknowledge this in the second consultation which is to be applauded. In looking at the value of work experience it's essential to consider and be clear about what you are trying to achieve with work-based learning. The three elements of the assessment process need to be aligned, namely the assessment criteria underlying the assessment, the work experience of candidates who are sitting the assessment, and the format of the examination.
The SRA states that it is difficult to assess work-based learning so they do not intend to. Instead testing will be by way of SQE Stage 2 but the key is the quality of the experiential learning and what is recognised/not recognised for the purposes of qualification. It is hard to assess work-based learning but is that really a reason not to do so?
In the past the SRA has indicated that other jurisdictions are moving away from a focus on degrees. Even if true, this bucks the increasing trend within our own country for degrees to be required for other professions such as nursing. Is it right that a nurse or police officer potentially has to undertake more academic study than a lawyer? The SRA does refer to new solicitors having to hold a degree, apprenticeship, or equivalent. This is a step forward and recognises different ways in which candidates may gain the necessary level of skills and experience.
All stakeholders must now remain engaged with this hugely important debate '“ we are, after all, talking about the future of the profession. If this proceeds without proper consultation and input from those with the experience and knowledge to truly understand the needs of the profession, there is likely to be a detrimental impact on the profession's reputation and the service delivered to the public.
Helen Hudson is head of legal development at Nottingham Law School, part of Nottingham Trent University