City solicitors, regional solicitors, consumers and the Law Society have all pushed back at the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s plans to reduce the two years that students have to spend in workplace training before qualifying.
The City also warned that if the profession wants to maintain its “global pre-eminence”, it would be “folly to be going backwards in what solicitors are expected to know on qualification”.
The City of London Law Society (CLLS) made it clear that if the SRA persisted in its plans to introduce a weaker training regime, many law firms would ignore the new standards and simply “set their own requirements”.
Replying to the second consultation on the SRA’s plans for a centrally assessed solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) to assess whether aspiring solicitors are ready to qualify, the CLLS said it strongly disagreed that the new exam provided a sufficient test of competence.
“In the light of our impending departure from the EU, when we will experience direct European competition, our international competitiveness has, if anything, become even more of an imperative.
“We do not want to open a door to any EU suggestion that we fail to meet an equivalence standard, nor do we want to open ourselves to the longstanding US criticism that the solicitors’ qualification is ‘law-lite’ by comparison with the JD [Juris Doctor] degree in the US.”
The CLLS warned that if there was not a “broad consensus” on the reforms, the SRA would not achieve its objective of a level playing field.
“If not, then many, including City firms, will not rely on the regulatory standards set and will set their own requirements, and the level playing field, with enlarged access for all, will not be achieved.”
The CLLS predicted that over time, professional training would “simply become limited” to what was needed to pass the SQE.
“We feel that consumers will be put at risk and that the profession’s reputation and capability will suffer irreparable damage both domestically and internationally.”
The CLLS was joined by the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP), the national Law Society and the Bristol Law Society in arguing for the retention of a minimum two-year period of workplace training.
The Law Society said its Global Competitiveness Report, carried out in 2015, found that the two-year period was “one of the key reasons” for the good international reputation of English and Welsh solicitors.
The LSCP panel said it was important not to underestimate the experience required of a newly qualified solicitor.
“We have seen no arguments, evidence or commentary to suggest that 18 months’ experience will produce the competencies required and recommend continuing with 24 months, with flexibility as to where this can be gained.”
The panel warned the SRA that introducing the SQE in September 2019 would be “overly ambitious”, leaving little room for testing, and urged it to reconsider its timetable.
The Law Society said it was concerned that students might not be able to access funding for “either the new assessments or preparatory courses” required.
“The changeover to the new system must not inadvertently result in a new financial barrier being imposed, whereby candidates cannot access loan-funding for the SQE assessments.
“Such a financial barrier would inevitably impact most on individuals from lower income groups, with a negative effect on diversity and social mobility.”
However, unlike the CLLS and Bristol Law Society, the national Law Society said none of its concerns should detract from the society’s “underlying support” for SQE.
BLS said it was “unconvinced” that an “SQE-type” exam was the best way of addressing the findings of the Legal Education and Training Review, and called on the regulator to carry out a third consultation.
It said most of its member firms believed the proposals would only create more of an “administrative and preparatory training burden on the firms, despite a lack of evidence that the SQE will be an effective measure of competence”.
The Bristol society went on: “The SQE may provide more alternatives alongside existing training programmes, which firms are willing to explore, and on the face of it the SQE appears to provide greater flexibility.
“However, the general feeling is that firms do not see the current system as broken and they don’t want more uncertainty.”
It added that the second SQE consultation “did not meaningfully build on the position” after the first one.
“Whilst the idea of a qualifying examination remains reasonable in principle, until far greater detail is published, it would be premature to commit to introducing the SQE.”
Leeds University, in its response, said the introduction of SQE could have “serious and detrimental implications” for the law relating to social justice and for diversity in the profession.
The university went on: “Key areas such as family law, disability rights, immigration law and other aspects of social welfare law are critically important areas to support the vital public service contribution the profession makes to society, but will be squeezed from the curriculum.”
Professor Andrea Nollent, vice-chancellor and CEO at the University of Law, agreed that SQE would limit students’ learning.
She described the new exam as “too superficial in stage 1 and too narrow and restricted in stage 2, to properly assess the competence needed” for solicitors.
“In particular, the loss of elective subjects means that the level of understanding of key practice areas will inevitably be lower under the SQE regime than the current one.
“Firms will find their trainees will not have the subject knowledge of the area they are working on, nor the same level of skills in applying knowledge to practice areas that current trainees have.”