The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) does “significant violence to law as an academic discipline and to our colleagues and students”, law lecturers have argued.
Luke Mason, associate professor at Birmingham City University, and Jessica Guth, reader in law at Leeds Beckett University, said there was anecdotal evidence that damage was already visible “across the country” as law schools introduced multiple-choice tests to prepare students for SQE.
They accused the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) of an attempt to “redefine the nature of law, or at least legal knowledge, itself” by introducing the new exam.
“The understanding of law and legal knowledge which is contained within the SQE1, the first part of the new ‘super exam’, is an extreme departure from the ecumenical and open approach which has traditionally been taken to legal knowledge within legal education and training in England and Wales.
“The notion that law schools are trying to protect a particular model of learning is absurd. There is no such model.
“The reason legal academics are so concerned is the same reason law firms are sceptical about the SQE: they do not think this exam will provide useful information about a prospective lawyer’s legal knowledge or ability to use, interpret or apply it.”
In an editorial for The Law Teacher – the journal of the Association of Law Teachers – Mr Mason and Ms Guth said the SRA had made “a series of misguided claims” before deciding to introduce the SQE.
The first was that knowledge and competency at day one of admission to the profession could “best be tested by a centralised assessment”, decoupling the regulation of entry into the profession from legal education and training.
“Put another way: the SRA regulates only the assessment to join the profession and does not care about, nor regulate in any way, the pathway(s) to that assessment.”
Another misconception was that the reforms represented “an opportunity to free the undergraduate law programme from the shackles of the qualifying law degree”, without having any regard to the “the fact that, if universities are to train students for the SQE, the shackles are rather tightened, not removed”.
The academics went on: “There is however also a broader concern for the quality of legal education more generally and the status of the law degree as a genuine engine for both social mobility and intellectual development through its hard-won status in England and Wales as a prestige liberal arts qualification.”
They said it was “not at all clear that the SQE will be significantly cheaper than the traditional route to qualification”.
“It seems highly unlikely that it will be cheaper once the almost certainly obligatory crammer course for the test is added into the mix. Of course, if university law schools teach SQE-ready degrees, so the argument goes, there is no need for crammer courses.
“Except, of course, that there is a need because the SQE is taken at one point in time and not spread over the duration of the degree and some form of ‘revision’ will always be required.”
Attacking the SRA’s predictions that the SQE would be good for social mobility, the academics said: “While all solicitors will have to pass the SQE, the context in which they do so and the job prospects following the SQE are very, very different.
“In reality we suspect that almost nothing will change for students at Russell Group universities heading for magic circle firms. Instead of paying for the LPC, firms will pay for the SQE and will likely offer their own bespoke SQE training courses.
“Students attending a lower-ranked university undertaking an SQE-ready degree will not get any closer to a magic circle firm than they do now.
“In short, the SQE risks exacerbating inequality and is a step backwards for genuine diversity in the profession and perpetuates and potentially widens the split in the profession between high street and magic circle firms. What is worse, it does so by creating an illusion of equality.”
Mr Mason and Ms Guth added that the views expressed were theirs and not those of their employers, “at least not in so far as they would ever publicly admit”, but this was not a time “to hide behind carefully drafted meaningless statements” but “to (re-)claim our discipline”.