Posted by Isabelle Booth, client services associate at Legal Futures Associate Flex Legal
In recent years, law firms have been increasingly pressured to attract a more diverse pool of young lawyers. One of the fundamental motivations behind the introduction of the centralised Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) assessments was to address this issue.
This article investigates what the SQE means for diversity and considers the recent developments in this area.
How diverse is the legal profession now?
As a starting point, it’s useful to look at the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) most recent diversity statistics , to really highlight the problem that the SQE is aiming to address.
They show that 3% of all solicitors are disabled, compared to 13% of the UK general workforce. In addition, 21% of solicitors are Black, Asian or from a minority ethnic group (BAME), broken down as 15% Asian, 3% Black, 2% from multiple ethnicities and 1% from other ethnic groups.
The lack of diversity can be further highlighted by the fact that 21% of solicitors attended a fee-paying school, compared to 7% of the general population.
It is clear from these statistics that more needs to be done to open up the legal profession to all members of society, to ensure that the legal community truly reflects the people it serves.
The SQE pilot studies: a cause for concern?
The suggestion that the SQE would aid diversity in the legal profession encountered a significant obstacle during its initial pilot studies. It was found that White candidates generally outperformed their BAME counterparts in assessments of functional legal knowledge and other skill sets that were proposed to form part of SQE1.
This result threatened to undermine the efficacy of the SQE in addressing diversity as employers are likely to consider SQE results in their hiring process. If White candidates perform better than their BAME peers in the SQE, they will also perform better in the job market meaning issues with diversity will remain.
Shortly after the SQE pilot studies, the SRA pubished an equality, diversity and inclusion risk assessment published  that said the methods used in the SQE could not be seen as “intrinsically biased” and the outcomes were equal to those seen in the current legal practice course (LPC). But if that’s the case, how will the SQE have any positive effect on diversity at all?
What are the benefits of the SQE for diversity?
The main way in which the SQE aims to tackle the lack of diversity that we currently see is by removing the gamble of the LPC.
At the moment, there is a significant imbalance in the number of students passing the LPC and available training contracts, causing an unhelpful bottleneck. This means many aspiring solicitors are forced to find around £14,000 to fund the LPC with no guarantee that they will even be able to qualify and see a return on their investment.
Finding this amount of money is a struggle for anyone, particularly those from lower-income households, meaning a number of highly intelligent minds are excluded from the profession. These fees also create a high level of risk for those who are required to take out loans to fund the course.
The SQE removes this uncertainty by allowing SQE candidates to qualify as a solicitor with two years of qualifying work experience (QWE).
QWE is extremely flexible; it must simply be grounded in legal work and provide candidates with the opportunity to develop some of the SRA competences , which broadly relate to areas of legal knowledge and legal skills.
QWE can be completed on a full-time or part-time basis, and can be paid or voluntary. So the SQE puts the control back with the candidates; if they cannot secure a training contract (or the SQE equivalent), they can look elsewhere for paralegal roles that will allow them to qualify.
The minimum costs of the SQE are also substantially lower than the LPC. The SQE examinations, which are technically the only essential expenditure associated with the SQE, cost around £4,000.
By contrast, the average price of the LPC is a huge £14,000. The difference between these two routes is reduced when you factor in the price of SQE preparatory courses. However, the considerable variability in these prep course fees means the SQE still has the potential to be a much cheaper option for students.
There is also much to be said for the standardisation of the SQE. Previously, the LPC examinations were set by individual course providers. By contrast, the SQE is administered by the SRA’s partner, Kaplan, ensuring all candidates are assessed in a consistent way.
This means that there should be less emphasis placed on where candidates completed their SQE preparation and any previous education or opportunities.
A report by the Bridge Group , which specialises in diversity and social equality, supports the idea that the SQE could have a beneficial impact on diversity.
The report said the SQE has the potential to increase candidates’ choice when it came to legal training. It also hypothesised that costs may be driven down by competitive pressure.
However, Nicholas Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group, did acknowledge that “there is no silver bullet to address diversity in the legal profession” and that the success of the SQE in addressing diversity issues will “depend on how much legal business and training providers embrace the opportunities around these reforms”.
The Law Society has recently called on the government to formulate a loan system specifically for students undertaking the SQE.
It warned that, if no loan system was devised, candidates from less affluent backgrounds could encounter a “significant barrier” to entering the legal profession. This would have significant implications for diversity and mean that the issues faced are nearly identical to those associated with the LPC.
The Law Society also explained that the absence of a loan system would prevent smaller law firms from taking on aspiring solicitors, which is one of the key benefits of the flexibility that the SQE offers.
Smaller law firms may not be able to cover the costs of SQE preparatory courses, meaning candidates will continue to be drawn to large City law firms. Thus the best talent would remain with these firms, and candidates’ choice of firms to apply to would be limited.
Whilst large firms may be the desired environment for some, others may prefer the intimacy and responsibility that comes with working at a smaller firm. A government-backed loan system would ensure that candidates have a choice and can pursue their careers in the environment that is right for them.
Although the details of this loan system would have to be considered further, the Law Society has suggested several potential avenues, such as use of the apprenticeship levy in a more flexible manner or an extension of an existing loan scheme.
Regardless of these details, it is clear that some consideration of SQE prep course funding must take place to ensure that the SQE has the desired effect on diversity in the legal sector and helps this sector to reflect the community it serves.