In April 2017, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), announced significant changes to routes to qualification as a solicitor. Currently, in order to qualify in England and Wales, the route taken in most cases is successful completion of either a qualifying law degree or a non-law degree and a conversion course (the academic component) followed by successful completion of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) (the vocational component), and a two-year training contract (the work-based learning component). Assuming the SRA’s reforms go ahead as planned, future qualification as a solicitor will require only successful completion of a degree (which need not be a law degree) and successful completion of two stages of centralised assessments known together as the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). SQE stage 1 will primarily test the application of legal knowledge across three examinations using multiple choice questions, whilst SQE stage 2 will test practical legal skills such as interviewing, advocacy and drafting. In addition, there will remain a requirement to complete two years of qualifying work experience, although this will be more flexible than the existing training contract. Indeed, the two-year period can be made up of experience with up to four employers and can include experience gained in provider-run Legal advice centres such as the one at Nottingham Law School (NLS).
The SQE will be introduced in September 2021 with transitional arrangements meaning that some students may still qualify under the existing regime until 2032. Thus, students starting a qualifying law degree or a conversion course before the introduction of the SQE will have the option of either taking the existing LPC or the new SQE. It may be that the SQE route will be quicker and/or cheaper than the LPC route, but at this stage it is simply impossible to tell. Similarly, it is unclear what the preference of employers will be between the ‘tried and tested’ LPC and the ‘new kid on the block’ that the SQE regime represents and this will surely be a consideration for those students in the position of choice.
It is also clear under the new regime that, whilst the SRA will not require completion of a particular course of study, with the focus instead being upon successful completion of the centralised assessments, the cost of those assessments and the challenge they will present will mean that the preparation undertaken in advance will be hugely important. It is anticipated that a variety of models will emerge, from undergraduate courses incorporating SQE preparation such as the innovative Applied Legal Knowledge Pathway on the LLB course at Nottingham Law School, to LLM Courses providing SQE preparation which will attract postgraduate funding.
In making choices of preparation courses, it is important that students carefully consider all aspects of the course offering, including quality of teaching, quality of resources, academic and pastoral support, commitment to equality, diversity and widening participation, pro bono opportunities and dedicated employability support. Further, the rigour, thoroughness of preparation for modern legal practice and quality assurance of preparation courses will also be factors to be considered by students as it is clear that these are concerns that matter to firms.
There remains, of course, uncertainty over what the new regime will finally look like and there are a number of questions still to be answered. In particular, key questions concern the timing and full costs of the SQE assessments (indicative costs have been announced with the total estimated costs of stage 1 and 2 being between £3,000 to £4,500), in addition to clarification needed on the way in which data will be collected and used.
When the SRA begins its SQE pilot in March 2019, many answers will begin to emerge. Ahead of the pilot, on the 30 January, a new assessment specification was released which included a blueprint setting out the respective weighting given to different parts of the three functioning legal knowledge assessments that make up SQE stage 1. Such detail is welcomed in enabling providers to develop robust and comprehensive preparation courses.
As one of the largest and most innovative law schools in the UK, Nottingham Law School is well prepared and uniquely placed to respond to the changes, building upon our reputation with firms and students alike in delivering excellence in legal education. Whether undertaking the Legal Practice Course or looking forward to the delivery of SQE preparation courses, our outstanding faculty of legal practitioners and academics will ensure that Nottingham Law School graduates have the specialist knowledge, skills and insight into the profession that will enable them to flourish in the legal sector.