Guest post by Mary Bonsor, a solicitor and co-founder of F-LEX
Should I be surprised by the recent article by the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) in The Lawyer entitled ‘Cutting through the Gordian Knot of the SQE’? How often do lawyers like change or adapt at pace?
While it is right to raise valid concerns about the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), are we not a bit tired of hearing the same old tune of the beaten drum with no better alternatives being suggested and at the eleventh hour?
The JLD says the proposals are an inconsistent tangle, or a ‘Gordian Knot’, so let’s get out the hairbrush (?) and help untangle this mess by addressing its points and clarifying the SQE’s wider benefits.
More flexible qualifying work experience opens up the profession to those who, quite frankly, should be qualifying as lawyers. I work with hundreds of paralegals. I’ve seen too many talented people get stuck in a bottleneck.
The numbers don’t stack up, with 25,000 undergraduate law students and only 5,000 training contracts. Too many cannot complete qualification for unfair reasons – from juggling caring responsibilities to struggling to convince certain firms that their face ‘fits’.
The JLD fails to mention any constructive solutions to this problem – or the fact that many paralegals are vulnerable to exploitation by firms dangling the carrot of a training contract in front of them.
The new approach empowers people. It offers a lot more flexibility about how candidates gain experience, whether through a sandwich year in industry, a law clinic, or doing several placements in house.
How is that less consistent than the various law firms doing training contracts in different ways? One firm might sign off on six hours of photocopying whereas another firm may take training more seriously.
The consistency comes with testing the competencies and having a standard across the board for all those taking the SQE2 examination.
There is no paradox here. Allowing greater flexibility with the work placements you do, but ensuring consistency by a single assessment, makes complete sense, especially in a world where legal services are becoming more digitalised, new skillsets are needed and the industry is changing at a rate of knots (not of the Gordian nature).
The current system does not offer more protection than the SQE. How do law firms signing off that a candidate has the right skills provide greater reassurance than knowing a lawyer has passed a consistent set of high standards, tested across the board?
The JLD argues that, in the new system, there are no safeguards for the consumer on the identity of the person doing the sign-off, even though that person has to be a solicitor? A solicitor has a duty to act with honesty and integrity. But the key point is that the safeguard is the examination.
As a consumer, I would prefer a solicitor who I could trust had met a certain standard rather than not knowing anything about the different standards of different firms. Also paralegals will not be giving legal advice to the consumer as they have not yet qualified.
The JLD has missed the point. Consumers will be protected as those who are allowed to give legal advice and are qualified to do so, will all have been assessed to a consistent standard – unlike now.
The JLD then questions why it has not been made mandatory that SQE2 should be taken after qualifying work experience where the competencies it tests are obtained.
We know that some law firms may want to put their trainees through SQE2 sooner. But for others, people will want to maximise their chances of passing SQE2, and so will want to gain experience first. Otherwise they risk not passing and having to explain this to potential employers. Again, it seems that the JLD are highlighting an unnecessary hurdle to the suggested reforms.
The argument that a lack of student loans will stop people trying to qualify is too simplistic – my student loan did not come from the government, it came from NatWest. If I was doing the SQE, I would probably not still be paying it off 10 years later to cover the £40,000 debt from the graduate diploma in law and legal practice course (LPC).
Having a lower cost of entry – and less need to gamble money up-front on an LPC – should help those with lower income backgrounds. The ability to earn while you learn, and the opportunities to qualify with zero training cost through an apprenticeship, should also help more people access the profession.
The JLD questions the SQE format and how the candidates will be assessed. Rather unfortunately, no mention is made of the 16 tasks in SQE2. For instance, candidates will be given a case and asked to review the problems and facts, or asked to run an interview – the more practical skills of being a lawyer.
It also claims that regurgitating a three-hour essay on contract law is a better way of testing knowledge rather than a set of multiple-choice questions. This feels odd. Other professional sectors use this method, as does our own industry, including for the New York Bar and the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme – this is a well-established testing mechanism.
Essays run a big risk of candidates getting lucky if their topic comes up. Multiple-choice allows you test a far wider range of practical knowledge. You test understanding through having very similar questions which are slightly different, rather than being able to memorise and vomit a lot of case law onto a piece of paper.
The JLD is trying to have its cake and eat it: it agrees that the current system needs improving but is then asking for as much regulation as possible to ‘protect’ against any change. Creating unnecessary roadblocks will simply stifle all innovation and opportunity for improvement.
The division concludes by citing Alexander the Great, asking the Legal Services Board – currently considering whether to approve the SQE – to cut the Gordian Knot in half.
I would urge the board and the JLD to look at the man who cut the original knot, Alexander the Great, who also said: “The end and object of conquest, is to avoid doing the same as the conquered.”
We do not need the SQE reforms to be chained down by even more regulation and red tape which results in little change. And we will be left with the same problems as now – an assessment where it is tough to trust people have met a consistent standard, and a system that puts up barriers to talented, able candidates being able to qualify.