The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has set out plans for a centralised assessment test, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), for all those wanting to join the profession.
Under the plans, the test would form the centrepiece of a radically different training system, in which solicitors would no longer need to be graduates or undertake a minimum period of on-the-job training.
The SQE, based on the regulator’s competence statement, would be split into two parts. The first would be designed to test “functioning legal knowledge”, the second practical legal skills – some of which would be assessed by “practical role plays with standardised clients”.
In its consultation paper, the SRA said it aimed to appoint an assessment organisation for the new exam in the summer of 2017 and the exam itself would not be introduced before the 2018/19 academic year.
“Entry into a profession is the key point at which the quality of the profession as a whole is defined,” Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, said.
“So it has to be right that everyone meets consistent, high standards. We think that the best way to ensure that solicitors meet the standards we, their clients and the public expect, is to put in place the same, rigorous assessment for aspiring solicitors.
“That will give real confidence to employers, the users of legal services and indeed the profession itself.”
On the thorny question of whether solicitors should be required to have university degrees, the SRA said: “As we have already said, we recognise the value which comes from having a degree, and we expect that most solicitors will continue to be graduates, just as most, but not all, are at present.
“We have also already indicated that the standard for qualification will be set at least at graduate level or equivalent. However, the solicitors’ profession has never required all solicitors to have a degree.
“For many years, solicitors could qualify through a five-year period of articles. Solicitors who are non-graduates can still qualify through the CILEx route. Many solicitors who have qualified through these routes have enjoyed long and successful careers in demanding areas of practice.
“Experience therefore demonstrates that a degree is not an essential pre-requisite for safe practice as a solicitor and we can see no regulatory justification for requiring all solicitors to be graduates.”
On the equally difficult issue of whether there should be a minimum period of pre-qualification workplace experience, the SRA said it had an “important role to play” in developing the competence of solicitors and in “assuring both the credibility of the new approach to qualification and the solicitor brand”.
The SRA went on: “The period of pre-qualification workplace experience is an important rite of passage for all trainees. It exposes them to the realities of working as a solicitor and gives them the opportunity to practise their skills before being granted the title of solicitor.
“In principle, therefore, it is likely that we will continue to require some form of pre-qualification workplace experience. However, we need to give careful consideration to whether the current approach remains appropriate, given that we know it acts a significant barrier to qualification for some.”
The regulator said that, rather than specifying a minimum period of time for workplace training, it might be better assessed by outcome.
“Specifying pre-qualification workplace experience by outcome might enable us to recognise experience obtained over a period of time, perhaps during a degree, or with a number of employers.
“This might enable us to recognise a wider range of experience than at present, including the experience of paralegals.”
The SRA argued that the SQE would “facilitate the development of more flexible pathways to qualification for those who are able to meet the robust standards of the assessment” and it would consult further on pathways next year.