The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will introduce its planned super-exam, the Solicitors Qualification Examination, despite opposition from the profession.
The SRA spoke to almost 9,000 people and analysed the results of responses from over 500 people from two different consultations.
In response to the consultation question To what extent do you agree or disagree that the proposed SQE is a robust and effective measure of competence?’‘, 60 per cent of respondents disagreed, including over 80 per cent of academics and 70 per cent of law firms.
However SRA Executive Director Crispin Passmore said that “popularity has never been the objective of a regulator” and that the consultation had been useful in that it had helped the organisation look at all the issues.
Julie Brannan, the director of education and training at the SRA, said: “I was struck by how much people care about this and it is to the credit of universities and the profession that they do. We want to work collaboratively with them to get this right.”
She added that the exam “unlocks choice in routes to qualification. It enables apprenticeships, allows universities to to develop courses that work for students and solves the training contract bottleneck.”
The SRA has now proposed a “consultative and transparent approach” to the testing and development phase of the SQE to establish credibility.
It said: “The purpose of this testing phase will be to consider and amend, if necessary, the design and content of the SQE, but will not reopen the question of whether or not the introduction of a common assessment is the right solution.”
How will the super-exam work?
The new way of qualifying as a solicitor will be in place by 2020, instead of 2019 as originally planned, and will have two stages of skills and legal knowledge assessments.
In order to qualify as a solicitor, candidates will need to:
- Have passed SQE stages 1 and 2 to demonstrate they have the right knowledge and skills
- Have been awarded a degree or an equivalent qualification, or have gained equivalent experience
- Have completed at least two years of qualifying legal work experience
- Be of satisfactory character and suitability
As a result, the SRA will drop the requirements for all aspiring solicitors to study the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and for non-law graduates to take the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This, says the SRA, eliminates the current problem of many would-be solicitors having to pay large up-front costs of up to £15,000 without a guarantee of a training contract or becoming a solicitor.
The first stage of the SQE will involve six functioning legal knowledge assessments and one practical legal skills assessment. The SRA anticipates this will be the cheaper part of the exam, and can be taken before the required period of work experience. It also anticipates that some universities will reshape their law degrees to incorporate teaching that will enable students to pass part one. “We are already seeing many universities kickstarting a curriculum review,” said Brannan.
The second part of the SQE would be taken on the point of qualification and will involve two sessions of five practical legal skills assessments, which include client interviewing, advocacy and persuasive oral communication, case and matter analysis and legal research.
A period of work experience will also be required. This must total at least two years and could take the form of a traditional training contract, but could also take other forms. Work experience from up to four different organisations will be allowed to count towards the qualification requirement.
The current requirement for students to experience both a contentious and a non-contentious area of law during their period of work experience will also vanish, though the exam will test them on both.
Candidates that have already started a law degree, GDL or LPC by the time the super-exam is implemented in 2020 will have a choice of whether to follow the old route or to take the new SQE.
An independent organisation will be responsible for the delivery of the exam itself, and the SRA expects to put the contract out to tender before the summer.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “We all need to be able to trust that those who enter the profession are fit to practise. The current system cannot provide that confidence. The new SQE will provide assurance that all those who qualify, regardless of pathway or background, meet the consistent high standards we set on behalf of the public.”
The organisation first put forward its proposed shake-up to the legal education system in England and Wales in December 2015, with the concept of a final super-exam taken at the point of qualification central to its thinking.
Helen Hudson, head of Legal Development at Nottingham Law School: “Today’s announcement from the SRA that they are introducing a Solicitors Qualification Examination comes as no great surprise. It was clear from the outset that this was the their favoured approach and despite widespread opposition from stakeholders, including practitioners and legal education providers, the SRA has not wavered.
We remain concerned about the impact this will have on equality and diversity.
The SRA has produced no evidence that the SQE will reduce the cost of qualification for students and no indication of how much students will have to pay to sit the SQE.”
Peter Crisp, the Dean and CEO of BPP Law School: “Now that we know what the SRA is going to do, our priority is to ensure that the education and training we provide is of the highest standard and quality, and continues to be directly relevant to the profession, law firms, and students, as well as complying with the new regulatory framework.”
“We look forward to receiving clarification and confirmation from the SRA on the detailed syllabus and curriculum for both parts of the SQE so that we can start developing new programmes to our law firm clients and students.”
“Apprenticeships could now become one of the major ways in which people qualify as a solicitor and the onus will be on training providers to ensure that any SQE study programme will be every bit as rigorous as that undertaken by entrants to the profession who have followed other routes to qualification.”
“The new routes to qualification, combined with the introduction of the Apprentice Levy, will present many firms with a timely opportunity to radically change the way their business is resourced. The profession now has a tremendous chance to tackle some of the issues they have had around retention and diversity. I’m very enthusiastic about apprenticeships and quietly optimistic. I don’t think it will be the only way firms will recruit their entry-level staff in the future but solicitor apprenticeships will be an important element in the talent mix.”
“There will also be an exciting opportunity for smaller firms that historically have not paid for LPC training to recruit graduate talent at a much earlier stage than under the current system. By drawing on the government’s levy funding, law firms will have the chance to hire and train new talent from the outset and for those recruited it will bring a welcome end to the financial burden of funding their own training.”
Professor Andrea Nollent, vice chancellor & CEO at the University of Law: “This is an exciting time for legal education. These reforms are a unique opportunity for innovation and improvement to legal training.
“With these reforms, as well as the changes to apprenticeships, there will be new ways for us to structure our courses to give enhanced legal and skills training to raise standards for solicitors to new levels, and to widen access to the profession.
“While we welcome the degree of extra clarity this announcement brings, there are still important details outstanding. In particular, we look forward to the SRA providing more specifics of the SQE syllabus and assessment methods. These will be fundamental to developing new courses that fit the needs of employers and students, and we encourage the SRA to give more information as soon as possible.”
Exams at the end of a training contract meaning lots will do two years of vocational training and fail to be admitted? https://t.co/B51YLCwHmh
— Ashley Connick (@AshleyConnick) April 25, 2017
2 year work experience from max 4 organisations (not necessarily law firms) instead of the current training contract. I'm all for it! https://t.co/bdwXfJosrY
— Jack Tan (@jackkytan) April 25, 2017
Might actually be tempted now… https://t.co/q6IPZqjyGl
— Umz (@Teh_Red) April 25, 2017
Really excited about this! Hopefully the change to the work experience requirement will remove the stumbling block of the TC lottery. https://t.co/zzZWqDPCYi
— MARTHA (@Marthadahhling) April 25, 2017
SRA training proposals: a timeline
25 June 2013: After several delays, a major report into the way solicitors are trained is published. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR). It calls on regulators to consider a range of reforms, including enhanced common training for future solicitors and barristers, beefed up ethics instruction, blending vocational study with on-the-job experience and widening non-graduate routes into the legal profession.
8 December 2015: Following months of swirling rumours, the SRA publishes its first proposals on how legal education should be reformed, putting a ‘super-exam’ taken at the point of qualification at the centre.
The response to the proposals is, in the main, negative. Various parties criticise the plans for being…
- “vague and confusing“
- “dangerous dumbing down“
- “likely to disadvantage the people they’re designed to help“
However, not all the reaction is negative. The University of Hertfordshire suspends its Legal Practice Course and revalidates its LLB to incorporate the new proposals.
“The proposals are an opportunity for every Law School to reflect on the future shape and form that law degrees, as well as legal education and training in a broader sense, should take,” it states. “It is not a time to be timid or to seek comfort in the familiar. It is a time to embrace change.”
1 June 2016: Responding to the criticism, the SRA delays its decision on training reform to spring 2017, but says there is still a “strong case” for the super-exam.
3 October 2016: The SRA publishes its second set of proposals. It addresses criticisms of its original plans by including the requirement that solicitors should be educated to degree level, and enshrines a period of work-based learning in the training period, but the super-exam remains a key tenet of its plans.
Unfortunately, the second set of plans do not attract a more positive response that the first ones, with professional bodies describing them as…