One in four SME law firms yet to embrace SQE

Allen: Multi-pronged approach needed

More than a quarter of SME law firms (27%) have not yet embraced the Solicitors Qualiying Exam (SQE), and nearly a half are not offering solicitor apprenticeships, research has found.

The main barrier for not adopting the SQE was lack of information, followed by the belief that it was “not the right time to transition” and a “lack of buy-in” by law firms.

Researchers commented: “The findings reflect that there is a long transition period – officially until 2032 – with many still taking on LPC [legal practice course] holders into their organisations.

“However, the reality is that the LPC window of opportunity is closing quickly with a real shift expected over the next couple of years.”

Of the 54% of SME law firms offering solicitor apprenticeships, most said they were using the route both to bring in new talent and upskill people, with the rest doing one or the other.

“Given the ability to access a much wider, more diverse talent pool and shape candidates from school age through to qualification, firms who turn their backs on the apprenticeship route are potentially missing a huge opportunity,” the report said.

“As well as expanding recruitment to build a more representative workforce, apprenticeships can help firms manage the salary expectations of Gen Z candidates, a particularly attractive benefit for smaller firms.”

Legal education provider BARBRI based The BARBRI Barometer report on responses from 127 SME law firms across the UK.

On diversity, 44% described their firm as already very diverse/inclusive, with 6% admitting they “still have a very long way to go” and 4% saying the issue “isn’t important to us”.

The remaining firms, in roughly equal proportions, said either that they had a little or some improvement to make.

Despite almost half of firms believing they were very diverse/inclusive, only 5% said they considered having an inclusive workforce a “priority to promote when we try to attract new candidates”, even though the report argued that this was a key tool to overcome the current challenges of recruitment.

More than eight out of 10 firms said recruitment was their top talent challenge, with 48% mentioning retention and a similar proportion “managing the expectations of Generation Z”.

Among the factors encouraging lawyers to join firms with 250 or fewer staff, having a “close-knit and collaborative community” led the way, followed by the “chance to have greater autonomy and flexibility” and flexibility and work-life balance.

BARBRI said that more than a third (35%) of firms did not have a formal approach to learning and development in place, though this was “not necessarily through a lack of desire”.

L&D competes with other business priorities due to a tough economic climate, according to 58% of the firms, such as balancing billable hours and training time.

Heading the ‘soft’ skill areas that added most value to SME firms were client relationship management, teamwork and collaboration, and communication.

An ability to deal with artificial intelligence and automation was seen as the key skill for the future, followed by cybersecurity and data privacy knowledge and legal design thinking (e.g user experience analysis, process mapping/improvement).

Lucie Allen, managing director at BARBRI, said the report had underscored the need for a “multi-pronged” approach.

“Building inclusive teams is a long-term strategy. Firms must combine initiatives like utilising the SQE, embracing apprenticeships, and fostering a diverse and supportive culture to thrive in the future.”

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