The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has named Kaplan as the organisation which will be setting the new Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE).

The new way of qualifying as a solicitor, which concludes with the so-called ‘super-exam’, was first mooted by the SRA at the end of 2015, but it was met with resistance by segments of the market, including the Junior Lawyers Division, academics and law firms.

By October 2016 the SRA had revised its initial proposals. In April 2017 it announced that the new qualification system would go ahead, and would be phased in from 2020.

Kaplan will not provide training for the SQE but has been granted the contract to develop and run the exam for eight years. The SRA now says it will be introduced “at the earliest, in September 2020,” leaving open the possibility that its introduction could be pushed back by a year or more.

One market source suggested that by the time Kaplan has given details of what the exam will look like, it would be difficult for providers to design a course that would be ready in time for autumn 2020.

The SRA says that “the costs of the assessment will be determined once the final design is fixed” although it is aiming to provide guidance on indicative costs before then.

The award of the contract to deliver the super-exam marks a re-entry into the legal education sector for Kaplan, which stopped offering its Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) in 2015.

The school, which was the UK’s third largest provider of postgraduate legal education after BPP and the University of Law, had lost three major law firm clients, Holman Fenwick Willan, Shearman & Sterling and Trowers & Hamlins, in the months leading up to its withdrawal from the market.

In 2014, it had shut down its Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC), blaming the economics of delivering the course for its decision.

Its economic model of a single site and relatively few students was in stark comparison to the models of its competitors, who rely either on student volume or an adjacent undergraduate law school to fund their resources such as libraries and career centres.

SRA Chief Executive Paul Philip said: “We are delighted to appoint Kaplan after a robust, competitive and open process. Its bid succeeded against some very strong competition.

“We are now another step closer to delivering a rigorous assessment that helps build trust that all qualifying solicitors are meeting the same high standards, regardless of their route into the profession.”

Kaplan CEO Peter Houillon added: “Kaplan is thrilled to have been selected to run the SQE on behalf of the SRA and build on our partnership founded in the delivery of the QLTS. We look forward to working collaboratively with all stakeholders to build and deliver a world class Solicitors Qualifying Examination.”

The University of Law (ULaw) also welcomed Kaplan’s appointment, saying that it provides “certainty” for current and prospective students.

ULaw’s pro vice chancellor Peter Crisp said: “It is our hope that this appointment will now lead to the publication of a clear timetable for the assessment implementation, which will provide students, the profession, and ultimately the public with certainty and confidence in the SQE.”

The super-exam: how will it work?

What happens to students currently enrolled on law degrees? 

Students who start a law degree before August 2020 (assuming the SQE is introduced on time) will be able to choose whether to train via the old route or do the SQE. The Solicitors Regulation Authority is preparing for a long period of transition.

Students who start a law degree after 2020 WILL have to go down the SQE route.

What happens to students currently enrolled on the Graduate Diploma in Law and Legal Practice Course?

Anyone currently on the existing postgraduate law courses won’t be forced to take the SQE and can qualify via the ‘traditional’ route.

What happens to students who start an undergraduate law degree after September 2020?

The super-exam will test things that aren’t currently taught on a law degree. It is likely that some universities will change the content of their degrees to prepare their students to take the first part of the SQE (which is split into two).

Since law degrees have traditionally been liberal arts degrees, not vocational ones designed to turn students into lawyers. A lot of academics think it should stay that way. So it’s also likely that some universities will keep their law degrees more or less as they are now.

Our guess: students applying to university after 2020 will have to look carefully at the content of the law course, to see if it is more of a ‘vocational’ one or a ‘traditional’ one, and then decide which sort they want to do.

Will I need a degree at all to become a lawyer?

Yep. You’ll need a degree “or equivalent” qualification.

So if the LPC is going to disappear, what happens to all the stuff you learn on it?

You’ll still learn it, just in different places. Some of it may well be incorporated into undergraduate law degrees, as we just mentioned.

It’s also probable that law schools will start to run ‘SQE Part One’ preparation courses to equip students with the skills to pass the first part of the exam.

I’m a non-law undergrad who wants to become a solicitor… what does this mean for me?

If you start the GDL before 2020, you’ll have the option to go through the ‘old’ route for non-lawyers.

Otherwise, after finishing your lovely non-law degree, you’ll be able to take the SQE Part One and apply for legal work experience just like law graduates.

You’ll probably want to take one of those preparation courses that don’t exist yet but will inevitably spring up to get you up to speed. Many of those courses may well look similar to the GDL. Watch this space.

Does this mean big City law firms will recruit non-law graduates straight into a training contract?

In theory, they could. In practice, the best guess is that firms will keep things quite similar to before: they may sign non-law students up for training contracts before they finish their undergrad degrees (as is currently the case), but they will expect them to take an extra course – maybe quite like the GDL – and probably pass SQE Part One as well, before they start working at the firm. But this is speculation.

More speculation: a law firm could potentially pay for trainees to do an super-intensive SQE prep course. This is what happens in America: students cram for the most intense few weeks of their life, pass the Bar exam, then go straight into law firms as associates. You could imagine the US firms in London doing that – potentially cutting years off the route to qualification.

You keep mentioning ‘SQE Parts One and Two’. What’s that all about?

So you’ll have to pass Part One of the super-exam before you can take Part Two.

The SRA says Part One will be relatively cheap to take. The idea is that those who fail it won’t then go on to take the more expensive Part Two – thus weeding out the no-hopers before they spend huge amounts of money.

Part Two is taken at the point of qualification – so after you’ve passed Part One AND got two years of work experience under your belt.

Work experience? You mean the training contract?

The SRA says that to qualify, you’ll still have to do two years of work experience – the length a training contract is now. For the big City firms, it looks like the training contract (or period of recognised training if we’re being precise) is here to stay.

However, the training contract won’t be the only way you can gain work experience.

The SRA says experience in up to four different organisations will count towards qualifying. So, for instance, you could do six months working for your university law clinic, then 18 months as a paralegal in a law firm. That would potentially count as your two years of work experience – so long as you had fulfilled all the SRA’s requirements in that time.

Some training contracts may well change a bit though. The SRA will no longer require trainees to get experience in three different areas of law. Nor will you have to have experience of both contentious and non-contentious work.

Frankly, it’s unlikely that the large firms will suddenly want to do away with their beloved seat rotation systems any time soon, but theoretically it’s possible.

And you can see how theoretically, a small American firm in London that concentrates heavily on finance, or an IP boutique, or a high-street firm that solely does conveyancing, might not want to bother with giving trainees experience in several areas of law.

Do I have to pass SQE Part 1 before I get work experience?

Not necessarily.

The only rules as far as timing is concerned are (A) you will have to pass Part One of the SQE before you take Part Two, and (B) Part Two must be taken on the point of qualification.

So you could accumulate work experience before and/or after taking SQE Part One.

What will SQE Part One test?

It looks likely that there will be six ‘functioning legal knowledge’ assessments covering…

  1. Principles of professional conduct, public and administrative law and the legal systems of England and Wales
  2. Dispute resolution in contract or tort
  3. Property law and practice
  4. Commercial and corporate law and practice
  5. Wills and the administration of estates and trusts
  6. Criminal law and practice

Then there will also be a practical legal skills assessment, testing your legal research and writing skills.

And what about SQE Part 2?

Lots of hard stuff, says the SRA. It’s still a long way off before anyone actually has to sit down and take this exam but broadly speaking, there will be practical legal skills assessments covering things like legal drafting, client interviewing, advocacy, legal research and written advice, and case and matter analysis.

Try not to stress too much about it just yet though – you do have a long time to revise.

Who’s going to be running the super-exam?

Kaplan has won the contract to deliver the exam. It used to run the GDL, LPC and BPTC until a few years ago so it knows legal education.

Wait… what about the University of Law and BPP? The LPC and GDL were like the geese that laid golden eggs for them – what are they going to do?

It’s nice of you to think of those guys. As SRA executive director Crispin Passmore has said: “We are not in the business of producing geese, golden or otherwise.” He went on to add that the training reforms are a brilliant opportunity for forward-thinking law schools to work with the SRA and law firms and produce lots of exciting new courses.

However, it is naturally in the interest of BPP and ULaw to lobby for the system to remain as close as possible to the one that currently exists. If not, they will have to think about designing new (and possibly less lucrative) courses.

The large City firms already run bespoke LPCs with BPP and ULaw. Those firms are, by and large, conservative beasts and doubtless they will still want tailored courses in the future. The reforms give law firms the chance to be even more flexible in what they put their trainees through but you might imagine they might not want to deviate too much from what is already offered.

You would also imagine that the law schools will do a good trade in running preparation courses for SQE Parts One and Two.

How much is all this going to cost? I’m as poor as a squirrel without any nuts.

The SRA says the new way of training will be cheaper than the old one, but exact figures are hazy as yet.

Last year law school supremo Peter Crisp argued that “the cost of qualification may well soar: the degree, plus some sort of LPC-style training, plus electives, plus crammer courses for the SQE, plus the cost of the SQE itself.”

“A cost in the region of £3,000 or £4,000 [for the SQE alone] would seem to be a minimum to me because Part Two is a very expensive process.”

Of course, by the time solicitor-hopefuls reach Part Two, they will be on the brink of qualifying and you would imagine those who don’t have a chance of making it as a solicitor will already have been weeded out of the process.

Apart from having a degree, and two years relevant work experience, and passing the SQE Parts One and Two, will I need to do anything else to become a solicitor?

You’ll need to pass the SRA’s ‘character and suitability’ test. So no thieving, bribing, assaulting, plagarising, murdering or defrauding, please. Best just to behave yourself.