Would-be solicitors are facing a qualifications overhaul. What’s the best option if you’re thinking of going to law school?

Students thinking about becoming a solicitor after graduation will have noticed that the route to qualification is changing. In a few years’ time, the old Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), which you have to do if you don’t have a law degree, will no longer be compulsory and over time will be replaced with a range of new preparatory courses for the new Solicitors Qualification Examination (SQE) introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The current date for this change is ‘not before’ September 2020.

What we know about the new SQE

The change, when it comes, will have a huge impact on the way lawyers are trained and understandably students are worried. How will the SQE work? How different is it from the current system? And perhaps most urgently – is it worth embarking on an LPC or GDL now, or wait until 2020 for the new SQE?

Many of the details of the SQE have still to be finalised, including how many online assessments candidates will need to take. But we do know that students will have to have completed a degree or equivalent, though not necessarily in law, before taking it.

We also know that everyone will have to sit and pass the same centrally run online tests (SQE 1) before they can enter themselves for the second part of the test (SQE 2), a series of skills-based assessments that will focus on testing the skills learnt – advocacy, interviewing a client, case analysis and so on . And we know that before final admission as a solicitor candidates will need two years’ work experience, which can consist of up to four placements lasting a minimum of six months each.

It seems there will be a strong recommendation that candidates should have completed a significant part of their work experience before attempting SQE 2 but this will not be a strict rule.

Delay your LPC or GDL or qualify now?

What, students may ask, is the point of starting a LPC or GDL if they are soon to be abolished? Why spend thousands of pounds on them when a newly minted model is just around the corner and which the SRA hopes may be cheaper?

There may be good reasons for a student to delay. If you’re not in a rush to qualify and want to wait to see how the two systems compare what’s the urgency? If you wait, you may find that you secure a role with a law firm that puts you on an apprenticeship rather than a traditional training contract which will include preparation for the SQE and allow you to earn at the same time. This is because many large law firms are now paying the apprenticeship levy and are looking seriously at the possibility of having a graduate entry point on to the solicitor apprenticeship. It’s also true that the more flexible work placements required under the new rules may prove to be less elusive than the old formal training contracts and that could be a reason to delay.

On the other hand, how many students are in position to tread water for three, years or more? Not many. If students have decided that they want to qualify as a solicitor, and they can’t afford to wait, then there are sound reasons why they shouldn’t delay.

For a start, the basics of a good law career will remain the same whatever the changing nature of the qualification process. And in that regard, the LPC and GDL are peerless. They give a broad as well as an in-depth training in law and have an excellent reputation with law firms. Students will be able to take them until the early 2020s and they will remain valid – no one who has an LPC or GDL will have to ‘upgrade’ to an SQE afterwards.

What’s more, the SRA hasn’t yet nailed down exactly what the SQE will look like. It may be less expensive initially, but we don’t know for certain. The SRA have indicated that doing the test itself will be cheaper than the current route. However, they have also said it will be rigorous and there will be a need for candidates to undertake a programme of study to be able to sit it. The market may innovate and cheaper courses may be on offer but will they be good enough to get you through the test and how will students know in the first few years which one to select?

Nor do we know what the pass marks will be. Will they be higher to make it more acceptable to the profession, or not? Law firms were in the main opposed to the new qualification. Most have accepted the change but it will inevitably take time for them to embrace it. In the interim, holders of a GDL and an LPC can expect their hard-earned qualifications to continue to be fully recognised.

The decider

The final reason not to delay is probably the best – the SQE may be essential but on its own it’s not likely to be sufficient for most law firms. It will not, for instance, require students to work in three different areas of law, and students will no longer be obliged to have experience of contentious and non-contentious work. Why does that matter? Because ultimately the regulator only determines what is the minimum requirement – the market decides what is ideal. And until the SQE matures, what the market knows and likes is the GDL and the LPC.

In the meantime, there is no reason for would-be lawyers to panic: the process maybe evolving but the components of a sound legal training, preparing them for the rigours of practice, will remain the same and students will be able to access them easily. Doubtless the profession’s frostiness to the SQE will start to thaw as the wrinkles are ironed out and law firms begin to find that it may have some advantages over the current system, particularly if they are able to source training that both prepares their graduates for practice and for a regulatory hurdle. Indeed, it may well be, once the dust has settled, that the qualification process will not in its essentials vary so greatly from what went before.

Jo-Anne Pugh is director of LPC programmes at BPP