Guest post from Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the Solicitors Regulation Authority
Regular Legal Futures readers will be well versed in the case for changing the way solicitors qualify.
There are more than 100 organisations setting and marking exams, and well over 2,000 signing off on the quality of trainees. By introducing a single, rigorous assessment, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will offer greater reassurance that every new solicitor has met the same, high standard.
The SQE also aims to build on what works well in the current system. This includes the opportunity for work-based learning and to enter the profession without studying law at university.
A graduate-only profession?
Some countries insist on a law degree to qualify. In England and Wales, we have long taken a more flexible approach and welcomed non-law graduates, sometimes to the surprise of other countries.
As a solicitor who studied modern languages maybe I’m biased, but there are distinct benefits to recruiting those with other strings to their bow – from history to foreign languages, science to economics. Many of our top judges and lawyers did not do law degrees.
Firms value the option to cast their net widely to attract the best talent and different skillsets into the sector.
With the SQE, we are taking things one step further. Although there is a positive story when it comes to diversity of academic background in the profession, we know that some socio-economic and ethnic groups, for example, are under-represented. We all benefit if the profession can attract the best talent from all walks of life and reflect the society it serves.
We anticipate the majority of solicitors will still qualify through the university route, but we don’t want to close the door on everybody else. There are plenty of reasons why talented people don’t go to university, whether its caring responsibilities, worries about costs or a feeling that it is not the right fit for them.
This has never been a wholly graduate profession. The history of solicitor training is through five-year articled clerkships. There were many ‘five-year men’ practising when I joined the profession, including the senior partner of my own firm.
Apprenticeships work on a similar principle, offering a different route into the profession which is focused on work-based learning from experienced practitioners. There are already more than 700 solicitor apprentices. For those without a degree, it involves a six-year programme.
Solicitor apprenticeships don’t simply equip the apprentice to take the SQE, but also result in a degree qualification. But the key difference is that apprentices’ experience is concentrated in the workplace: 80% of their time must be spent in the office, with 20% in the classroom. All apprentices will need to pass SQE1 and SQE2. Nobody will qualify if they are not good enough.
The SQE will offer the opportunity for individuals to shine. A candidate with excellent marks, who perhaps hasn’t studied at a ‘prestigious’ institution, can still stand out.
The feedback we are getting from those who have taken on apprentices is that they should be well-equipped to qualify.
Many have been pleasantly surprised by how swiftly apprentices get up and running and start contributing to the bottom line. Their feedback also suggests that it is enabling them to attract people from different backgrounds into the profession, and people who have a strong loyalty to their employer.
Apprentices get the benefit of a zero-cost route to qualification, with a salary on top. It’s a great option for someone who wants to learn from day one what it takes to deliver legal services in the real world of work.
We are also beginning to see new integrated training routes beyond apprenticeships. For example, options for existing staff in law firms to qualify through SQE while they continue to work for their employer as well as opportunities for students to combine degrees and work experience.
So, what with work-based apprenticeships which offer a degree and university-based degrees which offer work experience, the strict binary divide is blurring. Either way, the enhanced integration between academic and practical law is in my book something to be welcomed.
The SQE places a high value on the need for practical workplace experience, learning the skills and knowledge, ethics and professionalism you need to be a solicitor.
Yet the current system limits the opportunities to earn as you learn. Many gamble up to £17,000 on a legal practice course, with no guarantee of a training contract. They can be heavily in debt before they even have had the opportunity to do legal work. And talented candidates can get stuck unable to qualify.
With the SQE, there is much more flexibility around how and when you gain two years of qualifying work experience. You can do it in up to four organisations, and there is no need for a training contract.
This, combined with us splitting the SQE assessments into two stages, will mean aspiring solicitors have more options to spread costs out and earn as they learn. For instance, passing SQE 1 and then gaining valuable salaried-work experience to help them prepare and pay for SQE 2.
All the early signs from the training market are that candidates will also have more affordable choices as well. A range of providers have announced SQE training. All of them are offering courses that would allow you to train – and take both SQE assessments – for under or around £10,000.
Candidates could reduce the cost of training further by doing a degree that incorporates SQE preparation.
The first SQE sitting will be later this year. It is way too early, of course, to declare these changes a success. We will be monitoring the impacts of the SQE closely.
But I am confident that we are heading in the right direction. The SQE will provide a sound basis for attracting a greater diversity of talent into the profession, while making sure everyone can trust in high standards at the point of admission.