The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will not “deliver a more diverse profession in its current shape”, the founder of a campaign to achieve equality for women in the law has said.
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the Next 100 Years project and chief executive of flexible resource provider Obelisk Support, described the concept that the SQE would be more diverse as “severely challenged”.
She said the SQE was creating a generation for whom passing the exam was the “end of” and who did not look beyond that.
“They embark on the SQE with no career in sight. What are the prospects for them getting a job at a law firm or in-house? Are we selling them something that is not going to deliver?”
Speaking at yesterday’s Westminster Legal Policy Forum on education and training, she said socially mobile people needed “faster routes” into the profession.
Ms Denis-Smith said that often two-thirds of people obtaining training contracts at large law firms were from Oxford, Cambridge or Russell Group universities. “I don’t think the SQE will deliver a more diverse profession in its current shape.”
She said it was difficult for aspiring solicitors to pass exams if they were living in crowded houses, and she was concerned about the failure rates of socially mobile candidates.
Ms Denis-Smith called for more education in universities about how to get into the profession. “We will not be getting a diverse profession if we do not do something really quite different at an early stage.”
Lucie Allen, managing director of training provider BARBRI, said it was difficult at the moment to draw comparisons between the SQE and the legal practice course because the first cohorts going through the system were “abnormal” in containing a high number of overseas students and paralegals unable to get training contracts.
She said the proportion of UK graduates taking the SQE would increase from next year. The expectation that the SQE was a cheap route was “not always the case”, with two increases in exam fees, which had “taken their toll” on those funding themselves.
On the positive side she said the new qualifying work experience rules were opening the way for alternative routes into the profession, with solicitor apprentices achieving pass rates on the SQE eight percentage points higher than other candidates.
Earlier this year, an academic and diversity specialist argued that the efforts of City law firms to become more diverse and inclusive are a form of “reputation laundering”, offering only the “illusion of change”.