The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has moved to ensure greater monitoring of future members of the profession who complete their workplace training in firms without any solicitors, under its plans for a new qualification regime.
The SRA said that under its new training regime, external solicitors who sign off work experience undertaken in a solicitor-free firm must have “direct experience of the candidate’s work”.
However, the regulator also made it clear that “the third-party solicitor does not need to check the quality of the candidate’s work” to assess whether they should become a solicitor.
It was outlining its response to the third consultation on its plans to introduce a Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which dealt with the regulations required to bring it into being.
The SQE will be made up of two examinations, the second taking after the candidate has completed a period of qualifying work experience of not less than two years. They will also need to hold a degree or equivalent qualification or experience and satisfy the SRA of their character and suitability.
The draft rules provided that qualifying work experience must be signed off by either a compliance officer or a solicitor where the candidate has worked. But if neither was available, it could be signed off by another solicitor from another organisation.
The SRA said it understood the concerns raised about this in the consultation, and particularly whether such a person would know enough about the candidate’s work, and if it could result in a candidate having insufficient exposure to a solicitor.
The SRA said the important thing was that the person signing off the qualifying work experience could satisfy themselves that the candidate “has had the opportunity to develop the competences” outlined in its competence statement for solicitors.
The regulator has amended the draft rules to provide that external solicitors signing off work experience have “direct experience of the candidate’s work”.
The SRA went on: “They must have undertaken a review of their work, which may include a review of their training diary or portfolio, to satisfy themselves that the candidate has had the opportunity to develop the competences in the competence statement and they must receive feedback from the person supervising the candidate’s work.”
The SRA said it had “thought hard” about whether a solicitor outside an organisation should be able to sign off a candidate’s workplace training.
“We recognise that a core purpose of qualifying work experience is to expose candidates to the way a solicitor works, to clients and to ethical problems.
“However, arrangements could be made by a candidate with an external solicitor where s/he was able to work sufficiently regularly and closely with a candidate.
“For example, a candidate could make arrangements for the solicitor to act in a mentoring capacity during the period of qualifying work experience and to meet regularly with the candidate to review their work discuss how they are getting the experience they need to develop the competences.”
The SRA said the external solicitor would be required to meet the standards set out in its code of conduct and principles, meaning they must “act with integrity” when assessing whether they had developed the competences necessary to become a solicitor.
The regulator added: “We will make clear in guidance, however, that the third-party solicitor does not need to check the quality of the candidate’s work in order to assess whether they have developed the competences necessary to become a solicitor.
“We will check this through SQE stage 2 [the second examination]. We think that these additional protections will provide adequate protections without creating unnecessary regulatory burdens.”
If and when the regulations are approved by the Legal Services Board, the SRA said it expected to be able to confirm the appointment of an assessment provider by April 2018, and the new regime would be implemented no earlier than September 2020.
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, commented: “We have listened to the feedback from the profession on the importance of qualifying work experience and made changes to how that is supervised.
“Our new approach to qualifying work experience will give candidates real flexibility, address the current training contract bottleneck and give the profession confidence that new solicitors have benefitted from the training that only the workplace can provide.”
The Law Society, which has previously complained about the absence of “any input” from the profession where firms had no solicitors, said it welcomed “the fact the SRA has listened to our concerns”.
However, president Joe Egan said it would be “premature” for the Law Society to approve the draft regulations unless they were accompanied by a “comprehensive plan on how the SQE will be assessed”.
Mr Egan added: “It is essential the work undertaken by trainee solicitors is rigorous enough to prepare them for a career in law but, despite our recommendations, the SRA has said work experience should only provide the candidate with the opportunity to develop some or all of the skills required.”