Would-be solicitors will not have to go through the legal practice course and a two-year training contract to qualify in future, after the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) confirmed it is pressing ahead with its new training regime – but it has delayed implementation by a year to September 2020.
The regulator said the new structure would “get rid” of what it dubbed the “LPC gamble”, of paying large up-front costs of up to £15,000 to go through the course with no guarantee of a training contract or qualifying as a solicitor.
It argued that the new regime would increase the range and choice of legal training and was likely to be cheaper.
The new qualification will consist of four elements, meaning that by the time candidates seek admission as a solicitor, they must have:
- Been awarded a degree or equivalent Level 6 qualification (the scale prescribed by the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications), or have gained equivalent experience;
- Passed stages 1 and 2 of the new solicitors qualifying examination (SQE);
- Completed qualifying legal work experience under the supervision of a solicitor or in an entity regulated by the SRA for at least two years; and
- Be of satisfactory character and suitability.
There will be no prescribed order for completing the first three, except that SQE 2 cannot be taken before SQE 1. The work experience requirement removes the current demand for a block two-year training contract which all trainees must complete. It also opens up solicitor apprenticeships, which have funding incentives for employers.
SQE 1 will cover the core areas of the current qualifying law degree/graduate diploma in law and LPC. At a media briefing today, SRA director of training and education Julie Brannon suggested it was likely that employers would want students to have passed it before they start working for them.
SQE 2 will involve practical skills assessments in specific areas of practice. All students will have to pass an assessment in advocacy to qualify.
There will be computer-based testing, a mixture of: ‘single best answer’ questions, which give candidates several alternative answers from which they must choose the best; ‘extended matching’ questions, consisting of lettered options followed by a list of numbered problems/questions for which they must select the option that most closely answers the question; and multiple choice questions.
There will be other assessment methods for oral and written skills.
The SRA will impose rules to ensure that qualifying work experience does not become too informal, limiting the number of placements in which candidates can gain it to four.
With “many stakeholders” asking for a longer lead-in to the SQE, the SRA has put back the implementation date by a year to September 2020 – those already on the way to qualification by then will be able to stay on the current route.
It pledged to introduce the SQE in a “gradual and consultative way”, with the next phase being to select an assessment organisation to run the SQE and consult on the rules needed to introduce the new regime.
In a paper published today, the SRA said the SQE would provide “the threshold confidence that solicitors are safe to practice and it can also create a new freedom for the profession and universities to collaborate in the training they think the firm or their sector needs, without unnecessary interference from the regulator.
“Employers can build on the SQE to develop targeted training programmes which provide the range of additional skills and knowledge needed now for practice in particular sectors.
“And, in the future, employers and educators will be able to react swiftly to ensure solicitors continue to have the right skills as the market for legal services changes.”
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.
“It will help law firms recruit the best talent, while still giving them flexibility to tailor training to their businesses’ needs. It will help the best education providers to show just how good they are, and give candidates, from all backgrounds, a fair opportunity to qualify. And it will meet public expectations that all solicitors take the same exam and meet the same high professional standards.”
At the briefing, he added that the SRA expected that in 2020 the majority of students would continue to follow a similar pathway to the current one, but that the regime offered greater flexibility.
SRA policy director Crispin Passmore argued that, far from creating a two-tier system of students who qualify in ‘traditional’ and non-traditional ways, the new regime would level the playing field by making sure all solicitors are assessed against a single standard. With students receiving specific scores from the SQE, employers would be able to benchmark those they take on.
The SRA paper noted concerns that it was not specifying particular routes to qualification or monitoring the quality of training.
It responded: “Although we recognise that this is move away from the current system, we did not receive compelling evidence that regulating educational processes would be as effective in checking that those we admit as solicitors are competent as setting an end-point assessment…
“Our proposed model has checks and balances in place to encourage good teaching and good learning. It is clear that good assessment drives good learning. If the knowledge and skills being assessed are the right ones, intending solicitors will be encouraged to learn what they need to know for safe practice.
“We will publish data on education and training providers’ SQE performance. This should offer an incentive for providers to drive up the quality of their teaching, and benchmark it against other providers.”