What is the SQE?
The SQE, replacing the LPC and GDL model, will introduce a new method of qualification for solicitors to be named ‘equivalent means’, in which those who have extensive legal experience—such as paralegals—can qualify as a solicitor.
Many details of the SQE are still unclear, as it’s yet to be finalised. We do know that there will be a lengthy transition period, where anyone who started on the traditional LPC/GDL route can finish their qualification in this way.
As with any big change, the SQE is not without its critics. Concerned parties are worried about the ‘equivalent means’ feature, the cost of the course and the methods of assessment. We wanted to get the gist of the SQE from its implementers, the SRA, as well as hearing the concerns of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) committee.
The SRA’s perspective
We asked the SRA if they think the SQE will widen access to the solicitor profession—a change that can only be a positive. Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said, “The removal of regulation on potential routes to qualifying, including the QLD, GDL or LPC requirement, will provide opportunities for people from every walk of life to consider a career as a solicitor.
“The new assessment will mean the public and law firms can have full confidence that all new solicitors meet the same consistently high standards, regardless of how they qualified. “As well as building trust and confidence, the SQE should also help widen access to the profession, by allowing different routes to entry, including ‘earn as you learn’ pathways such as apprenticeships.
“It will also remove the need for all would-be solicitors to pay significant up-front costs, often up to £15,000, to take the Legal Practice Course, which offers no guarantee of a training contract or becoming a solicitor.
“By offering a broader range of options for gaining Qualifying Work Experience, such as working as a paralegal, it will also remove the current ‘bottleneck’ caused by there only being a finite number of training contacts available each year.”
We also asked the SRA if they had any reassurance for those with concerns about the SQE. A spokesperson said: “We know people need time to introduce new courses and recruitment processes, so we will not be introducing the SQE before 2020. The SQE will be introduced in a gradual and inclusive way, which during the transition phase will allow candidates to choose between continuing to qualify under the current system or commencing on the SQE route. Many universities and training providers are already redesigning the content of their courses in anticipation of the SQE coming in.”
The JLD perspective
The response to the SQE has been varied. While some welcome it, there are a range of academics, legal groups and student groups that are apprehensive or concerned by the new mode of assessment.
One such group is the Law Society JLD committee. Adele Edwin-Lamerton, solicitor and chair of the JLD, stressed that it was difficult to summarise their position on a proposal both “radical and wide-ranging”, but provided an overview of the JLD’s main concerns:
“Essentially, the JLD is in favour of a standard assessment to be passed by all seeking qualification as a solicitor. However, we don’t agree with the lack of specified pathways to qualification.
“We are very concerned about the cost of the SQE assessment and the preparatory course. We don’t feel that just because the SRA hasn’t specified that a preparatory course is mandatory, this will prevent students (and firms) seeking a programme of study to assist them in passing the assessment, leaving those unable to afford a course at a disadvantage.
“Not all universities will incorporate SQE Part 1 preparation in their undergraduate LLB programme, meaning for many there will be an additional cost.
“Further, the non-mandatory nature of preparatory courses will mean it isn’t possible to obtain a professional studies or career-development loan to cover the cost, leaving many unable to fund it.
“Then there’s the cost of the SQE assessment itself. We’re concerned that this will be significant. All of these issues will have a negative effect on social mobility.
“Finally, we’re not persuaded that the use of multiple-choice questions offers a rigorous means of assessment.”
As with any major change that affects the bulk of a profession’s junior members, the SQE has caused a stir. There are additional benefits and concerns to consider. Welsh solicitors are worried that the examination style will not pertain to their needs, while academics have expressed concern that the current requirement of an LLB degree will no longer be essential. On the other hand, paralegals and other legal professionals have welcomed the SQE, seeing it as a route to qualification with fewer hurdles than the current pathways.
However, while it’s important to be aware of the SQE as an aspiring lawyer, current students need not fear the arrival of the exam. The existing methods of qualification will remain for the near future at least, so heading down the GDL/LPC routes—as well as applying for training contracts—is the best thing to do to secure your career path.