Director of Learning and Development & Chair of Education and Training committee
Senior Practitioner in law – Keele University
So what is the SQE?
From ‘Autumn’ 2021 anyone who has not already started a law degree or GDL will have to take the SQE to become a solicitor. It is in two parts. SQE1- a functioning legal knowledge test of 360 questions across two exam papers of 3 hours duration each. Yes, 90 seconds per question for 3 hours! The data around reliability makes a convincing case for why so many questions. The syllabus has been set by the SRA and that’s another debate. SQE2 is the skills based assessment. There have been pilots of both exams. We know that the assessment of skills in SQE1 was disastrous from an equality and diversity standpoint. It will not proceed in its current form. This means skills may not be assessed until SQE2- which could be the point at which a solicitor is admitted. However, the areas in which these skills as assessed is very limited. Candidates choose to practice areas from Criminal practice; Dispute Resolution, Property; Wills and the Administration of Estates and Trusts; Commercial and Corporate Practice.
We know what is coming and most of us whatever, we think about the proposals, accept the inevitability and have a plan. The detail, the structure, and the areas being examined keep changing, but we get the general idea. Are most of us going to change the content of our law degrees? No. Whatever the SRA thinks about us needing to train students for their new exam, a law degree is a reputable degree encompassing a critical evaluation and debate about law in many many forms. We want our students to experience many different areas of law not just the SQE. Many of our graduates do not pursue a legal career at all. The law degree is not going to suddenly become a training ground for aspiring solicitors. There is the Legal Practice Course for that and those providers are designing new courses.
Now we will be allowed to teach whatever we want on our law degrees we can be more innovative in what and how we teach and universities are most certainly embracing that change. Even research led institutions like my own at Keele is introducing a new pathway for professional legal practice to give students some basics in practical skills before they graduate but we are not teaching SQE prep and this is a choice to study not a mandatory route.
So what do firms need to do?
- Recognise that aspiring solicitors especially at A level stage may not understand SQE.
- Transitional provisions will be in place technically until 2031 although practically most LPC courses will have evolved by then.
- Is the SQE relevant to you? Lots of firms are ignoring it for the first 2 years and then looking at it again for 2023. Guinea pigs?
- Do you recruit a mix of law grads and non law? How will you train the non law grads? The GDL (law conversion course) will still exist in another name.
- Do you want to recruit after completion of SQE1 and SQE2? You then provide qualifying work experience (QWE) in a similar way to a training contact, or use the new freedom to use your aspiring solicitors in whichever departments you wish for as long as you need; but they must have had an opportunity to experience the competencies listed in the SRA statement of competence for a solicitor. Ironically they do not actually have to be signed off by you as competent at all! The SQE2 exam assesses that, not you. If they pass the exams and do 2 years QWE then they are admitted (subject to the usual character and suitability checks).
- Will you be willing to sign off the experience of your paralegals to enable them to obtain a patchwork of QWE amounting to 2 years and qualify as solicitors (assuming passing SQE)
It’s all a diabolical idea in my personal opinion, but it is coming. It will not be cheaper. I know students need help to pass exams, especially multiple choice ones. It’s almost as much technique as knowledge. MCQs are difficult to write and bright students often overanalyse them and get them wrong. They will have to pay for test prep courses. The affluent will pay for more prep; the less affluent will potentially buy the cheapest if any. How does that help diversity in the profession?
What we all need to consider is how we make it work for us. One answer is solicitor apprentices- a brilliant idea with a positive impact on diversity and access to the profession.
There is a now lots of information available from the SRA.
We will be updating everyone at our conference in June with the SRA in attendance as well as a panel to debate the practical implications of the SQE after the results of the SQE2 pilot.