Monday, 14 December 2015

The ‘Solicitor Super-Exam’ and Social Mobility

As part of an ongoing review of the education, training and qualification requirements for solicitors, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has recently opened a consultation on the introduction of what has been dubbed the ‘super-exam’ for solicitors – its real name is the rather more sober ‘Solicitors Qualifying Examination’, or SQE.

At present the proposals are nebulous and it is not exactly clear what the SRA is proposing, beyond the requirement for every would-be solicitor to pass the SQE. They have stated that it is likely that they will continue to require a period of pre-qualification workplace experience – currently called the ‘Period of Recognised Training’ but still known by everyone as a Training Contract – but have not specified the form that this might take, or its length. There is also considerable vagueness about the educational pathways leading up to the taking of the SQE – at present, a Qualifying Law Degree and then the LPC are mandatory courses – and it is suggested that the SRA might not require any particular qualifications or courses at all. This could, as some have pointed out, lead to people attempting the exam who have no formal training in law at all, or no degree, or both.

The SRA has stated that it believes the SQE will lead to a more diverse profession and that it will remove some of the barriers to entry for those from non-traditional backgrounds. It suggests that the cost of qualification (currently extremely high for those using the most common route to qualification, consisting of a undergraduate degree (perhaps £27,000 or more in student loans) a Graduate Diploma in Law if necessary, costing £10,000; and the LPC, which if not funded by a firm costs around £15,000 in London) will decrease if there is no longer a specified required training pathway, and that this will benefit less well-off would-be solicitors.

Conversely, the Law Society has hit back by asserting that the exam might damage social mobility and favour the wealthy. It points out that law firms might be less likely to want to sponsor non-compulsory courses (as many currently cover the fees for the compulsory LPC) such as ‘crammer’ courses for the SQE. This would lead to students from poorer backgrounds being disadvantaged as wealthier students could afford to pay for the courses while poorer students could not. Additionally it was noted that the proposals would not set a cap on the number of times each section of the SQE could be taken, allowing for multiple re-takes, which also might favour wealthier students.

At present, with the proposals so vague, it is impossible to assess the potential impact on social mobility. If the removal of approved pathways to qualification decreases cost, then the impact may be positive. On the other hand, law firms may continue to require law degree and vocational training courses, regardless of the SRA making these non-compulsory, in order to ensure that their trainees have sufficient knowledge before beginning work. If so, then any new vocational training course developed to enable students to pass the SQE is likely to be just the LPC by another name, and costs will remain the same, or perhaps even increase as private providers take advantage of the market.

The reputation of the title ‘solicitor’ has also been used by both sides to prop up their argument. The SRA has stated that the title will be enhanced by the SQE because it will overcome existing problems of variability in training – as they say, there are currently ‘104 institutions offering Qualifying Law Degrees; 33 offering the GDL; 26 offering the LPC and over 2,000 firms offering traineeships’, and not all of these providers offer or require the same standards and training. The SQE will lay down a core set of standards and competences which must be met by everyone wishing to become a solicitor, no matter their educational or employment background. But the Law Society has pointed out that the absence of specific training pathways, and lack of defined requirements for those taking the SQE, might lead to a loss of confidence in the title. It will only take one report of a member of the public with no legal training and no degree sitting down with a book for a few weeks and then passing the exam for the title ‘solicitor’ to be devalued. But as with social mobility, the lack of specificity in the proposals prevents a detailed analysis of the possible impact on the prestige of the profession.

At present no effective conclusions can be drawn. If the new SQE promotes higher and more stringent standards of entry into the profession, while also lowering costs and barriers to entry, then it should be welcomed with open arms. But if it favours the wealthy, promotes nepotism and lowers the actual or perceived intellectual standards of the profession, then it should be treated with great caution.


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