When news first emerged that the SRA were planning to make changes to the way solicitors qualified in England and Wales, I was of the view that the system did not need changing and worked well. Indeed I had been through a very similar training system, as had my colleagues at major City and global law firm, Herbert Smith Freehills.
I was acutely aware that the legal profession in England & Wales was not representative of our clients or wider society but from my “big firm bubble” I could not see how changing solicitors’ professional exams would address this wider issue without compromising on standards.
It seemed to me that the current two-year training contract, particularly at large firms, ensured that standards in the profession were maintained and that, after completing the LPC and the training contract, trainees had the necessary skills and experience to work in a large firm. It also ensured that the future pipeline of talent would continue to flow.
However, when I moved away from the City firm bubble, I began to appreciate the flaws which existed in the current training system, and the consequences or missed opportunities these were creating for individuals, firms and the public.
Having taken on a teaching role at the University of Law I was interested to see the rich diversity of students from all walks of life there. Most of these students were hugely gifted and had so much to offer to future clients and the wider profession. I also began to realise that many bright and committed students (who would have undoubtedly gone on to make excellent solicitors) were lost to the profession due to prohibitive LPC costs or an inability to secure a training contract.
Not only does the training contract bottleneck place an artificial cap on the number of trainees who can qualify each year, but the concentration of training contract opportunities within larger and City-based firms places geographic, social and cultural filters on those entering the profession.
As I met a greater diversity of students, I began to question my original standpoint that the LPC was the best way to ensure a consistently high standard.
I was also very surprised to discover that the GDL and LPC exams are not standardised across providers and that there is little or no transparency on pass and fail statistics amongst those providers. Whilst for the very best, or weakest candidates, this is unlikely to make a difference, this leaves a swathe of students in the middle where possible inconsistencies amongst providers may make a real difference as to whether they pass or fail, regardless of their ability.
From my initial position of reticence, the more I have considered these sorts of issues, the more I find myself optimistic about what the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) regime will bring to the qualifying process.
When discussing the merits of the SQE, too many people seem to think only about the exam itself, debating its potential difficulty and the quality of those who sit it. Whilst this discussion will undoubtedly continue up to and after the exams go live in 2022, from the information available so far, I believe that in this area, the SQE will be on a par with the current regime and also be consistent across the board. All students will sit the same test, marked by the same people against the same criteria, so that the profession can be confident of consistency and will know that whether a student passes or fails will be based on ability.
I have also realised that to truly consider the merits of the SQE, you have to look beyond the exams themselves.
Allowing candidates to gain qualifying work experience in a far wider range of settings will be revolutionary in opening up access to the profession. Not only will this mean a career in law becomes a realistic ambition for a far more diverse range of people, but it will widen the pool of talent of new joiners, which will result in benefits to the legal profession and therefore the clients, the people and the communities lawyers work with.
Most importantly under the SQE, one size will no longer be assumed to fit all and there will be opportunities for those who wish to work in-house or within a specific local community to train in areas relevant to that in a much greater way than ever before.
For both trainees and future employers this will create far greater opportunities and choice.
Aspiring solicitors who previously could not, or did not want to, obtain an elusive training contract in a big City firm will no longer find it as difficult to enter the legal profession. The SQE will allow those who want to train in communities, organisations or areas which better suit their individual interests and circumstances and where there is a real need for lawyers, to do so.
For firms and organisations offering qualifying experience there will be the opportunity to tailor the training and development of individuals to best suit the needs and requirements of that business and the market.
I am not suggesting that the SQE is a golden bullet that will overnight resolve the issues I highlight, but rather that, as I have come to understand the wider context, and think carefully about the institutional challenges within the legal profession, I have come to realise that, if delivered effectively, the SQE can help to improve the means of entry into the profession by taking the best of what we already have and striving to make it better, encouraging wider access to the profession whilst maintaining high standards.
Simone Pearlman is a legal trainer and knowledge management consultant. She was previously a litigator and head of legal knowledge at Herbert Smith Freehills and a tutor in dispute resolution at the University of Law.