A guest post by Jo-Anne Pugh, director of LPC programmes at BPP University Law School
It’s fair to say that most law firms have not warmly welcomed the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s plans to overhaul the route to qualification.
Many feared that the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) was an unnecessary alternative to the gold-plated standard of the legal practice course and a ‘dumbed down’ alternative at that.
They worried that the changes would restrict the pool of talented graduates entering the legal profession and enormously complicate recruitment.
Despite these fears, however, there are some grounds for optimism. A number of the profession’s concerns have been addressed. The SQE will remain a degree-entry qualification; the minimum time required for work experience will be two years; the implementation period is lengthy – the changes will only come into effect in September 2020 at the earliest.
Until that point, and for a little time afterwards, the LPC will be available.
What’s more, the SRA is still consulting. I appreciate that this can be a cause of frustration for firms because they want to know exactly what is required. But it is also indicative of something positive about the process – it is an evolving system and there is room for flexibility.
As less regulation will affect the content and delivery methods of SQE preparation courses, training providers will have more opportunity to create bespoke courses and align them to the needs of law firms.
There are other potential benefits, not least the prospect that lower costs (if they materialise) may entice a more diverse demographic. Smaller employers, too, will have the chance to access funds through the Apprenticeship Levy to reach promising candidates and train their own talent, which in turn may mean fewer students have to self-fund their way through the qualification process. And as the exam will be national and centralised, consistency can be guaranteed.
This does not mean earlier anxieties have been entirely assuaged. Law firms, especially specialist ones, remain perturbed at the lack of options on private acquisitions, debt and equity finance, commercial property, commercial litigation, intellectual property, employment, family or immigration law, for instance.
Others are concerned that work experience spread over several placements will lack consistency and impair quality, in turn making it harder for entrants who have taken such a route to then obtain a position on qualification and progress their careers. These are legitimate worries that have yet to be fully addressed.
Nevertheless, it makes sense for firms to see the SQE as an essential ‘floor’ for legal training rather than a sufficient ceiling. After all, the regulator only determines the minimum requirement – the market decides what is ideal.
If the SQE is looked at in this way, then the profession may begin to see opportunities to build on and enhance the basic proposition. The best elements of the LPC – rigorous technical training, writing, drafting and legal research – could be incorporated into a firm’s training package, for instance.
New components that reflect a firm’s priorities could be added, including business acumen and awareness as well as the new competencies required of flexible and resilient professionals working in a fast-evolving, technology-driven legal workplace.
At a time when the political and economic landscape is so uncertain, it’s understandable that the last thing law firms want to contemplate is a radical redesign of the qualifications system. It’s doubly galling as so many of them opposed the changes from the outset.
On the other hand, there is nothing more futile than fighting last year’s battles. Ultimately, if the profession wants to make a success of the SQE, they need to start owning it. Fortunately, that is a prize that is still available to be won.