What are the routes to becoming a qualified solicitor and what impact will the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam have?
Traditional and Modern Qualifying Routes in Transition
In 2016, following a robust consultation with responses from more than 500 stakeholders and having spoken to over 9,000 people, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced a replacement and alternative to the Legal Practice Course (LPC). From 2021, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination will launch.
Currently, there are three main routes to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales. Firstly, a person is able to complete an undergraduate qualifying law degree (QLD) at a UK university. Secondly, a degree can be completed in a different subject which is accompanied by an undergraduate conversion course through the Common Professional Examination (CPE) or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). These options are rigorously tested against the regulators’ Training Regulations and Academic Stage Handbook to ensure that a minimum level of expertise is achieved before students are able to move on to the next stage.
Successful completion of these first two routes is followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC), a post graduate qualification and statutory vocational two-year training period aimed at developing the practical skills needed to become a solicitor.
However, in recent years, regulators have opened up a number of alternative routes to becoming a qualified solicitor; the traditional laborious law degree or GDL followed by LPC and two-year training contract is no longer the typical form of qualification.
Solicitor apprenticeship routes offer school leavers the opportunity to train whilst working on-the-job and will enable trainees to become qualified as a solicitor after six years.
The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will become a centralized and standardized assessment taken at the end of all viable pathways and will create a consistency in testing which will create a universal benchmark quality throughout the entire profession, regardless of the qualifying route taken.
As all stakeholders, students, law firms and training providers will be affected by the new SQE examinations when they take full effect, how will the changes impact practitioners in the near and long term?
Solicitors Qualifying Examination or Legal Practice Course?
Glitches Could Cause Delays
In the near future, pathways to becoming a solicitor are adapting and changing. Currently the LPC is set to be replaced by the Solicitors Qualifying Examination. However, current students have the choice, until 2032, whether to take the tried and tested LPC route or become one of the pioneers undertaking the inaugural SQE iterations.
This presents a number of problems for current students looking to complete their training and qualifications during the period of transition; should they wait and complete the solicitors qualifying examination or continue along the traditional route?
Whilst the SQE is undoubtedly the future of qualifying routes for solicitors, it has been fraught with issues in the early stages of its development which could delay the roll out beyond its 2021 target.
Recently, following the first pilot stage, the SQE hit a defining stumbling block. The skills assessment was found to be insufficient in meeting the key requirements for licensing.
The SQE stage 1 pilot assessments, published by the SRA, were varied. The legal knowledge assessment picked up an average score of just 50% whilst the legal knowledge assessment accrued an average of 65%.
The interim report has since recommended for the three multiple choice question papers (MCQ) be amalgamated into two comprehensive MCQs with the hope that this will reach the targets for reliability and accuracy needed for licensing.
Although students have the choice until 2032 on their preferred pathway to becoming a regulated solicitor, those about to embark on their further education may be best placed in opting for the LPC route.
What is the Solicitors Qualifying Exam?
Ultimately, the SQE is inextricably linked with the SRA’s Statement of Legal Knowledge; this lays out the baseline understanding all solicitors must have gathered before they can qualify. This information must be demonstrated through the examination before attaining the qualification to become a solicitor.
Currently, the SQE, in its iteration at the point of writing, will follow the seven foundations of legal knowledge which make up the backbone of the current law degree and GDL routes.
The exam will also be split into two distinct stages. According to the SRA, SQE 1 will be split into two MCQ assessments which will focus on:
- Principles of Professional Conduct, Public and Administrative law, and the Legal Systems of England and Wales
- Dispute Resolution in Contract or Tort
- Property Law and Practice
- Commercial and Corporate Law and Practice
- Wills and the Administration of Estates and Trusts
- Criminal Law and Practice.
SQE stage 2 will hone the practical skills needed to become a solicitor. Assessments will involve mock interviews and scenarios whereby assessors will role play as clients. This section of the exam will focus on:
- Client Interviewing
- Advocacy/Persuasive Oral Communication
- Case and Matter Analysis
- Legal Research and Written Advice
- Legal Drafting
Perceived Positives of Undertaking the Solicitors Qualifying Exam
The system of qualified legal experience (QLE) which is set to replace the LPC training contract, is set to become a lot more appealing and less restrictive than the current system.
Students striving to pass their LPC need to complete two years of legal experience with the same firm before they can qualify as a solicitor. They are also obliged to work in a specific number of areas before completing the contract.
Under the SQE, students will have the freedom to complete the two-year training requirement within the maximum of four separate periods of QLE. This could enable students to experience a variety of law firms before they qualify.
Trainees are also no longer required to train in a number of legal areas under the terms of the QLE before they qualify as a solicitor, enabling students to specialise before they qualify.
Given the QLE could be completed in multiple firms, speculation suggests that more apprentice routes and graduate entry schemes could open up, helping to increase the work experience opportunities.
The test preparation courses taken prior to the SQE examination could be shorter and potentially cheaper than the current GDL fees. Whilst the SRA have only outlined provisional prices for the SQE, it is hoped that a shorter course for the SQE preparation may reduce the fees.
Perceived Negatives of Undertaking the Solicitors Qualifying Exam
The earliest exam date is transient and unknown. Some say that the earliest date will be towards the end of 2020. However, the SRA will need to ensure the examination is robust enough to overcome the issues which would currently deem the system un-licensable.
Again, the cost has been placed as both a potential positive and negative. The Junior League Division (JLD) of The Law Society has expressed their concerns regarding the potential for the SQE and QLE to take advantage of student solicitors. This came following the SRA’s decision to replace the minimum training salary with national minimum wage.
Additionally, the SRA have only released a provisional examination cost between £3,000 and £4,500. However, with no definitive cost of the preparation courses, overall students could be paying a lot more under the new system. According to the JLD, the fact that there is no clear student finance available to fund an exam alone, could place funding as a barrier to entry. Postgraduate loan funding from the Student Loans Company is likely to be unavailable for SQE preparation courses and the exam in its current piecemeal form.
It has been suggested that the SQE’s content is less diverse than the LPC as the SQE modules draw on the core modules of the LPC and not the elective content. Taking away the three elective modules offered under the LPC could restrict the understanding of the trainee solicitor.
The SQE system has the potential to initially leave trainees unskilled and ill prepared for their opening work placement. Completing SQE 1 before SQE 2 would mean that key skills in interviewing and drafting will be lacking if a placement begins at the early stages of the SQE.
The SQE sediment may take time to settle, but this radical standardisation of the examination process will become the industry norm. Although solicitors over the next decade may have the choice of course to take, it is thought that law firms will be unwilling to operate between the two for the next ten years and may insist that trainees complete the SQE from 2022. Regardless of the pathway prospective solicitors take, they should be prepared for the holistic and standard final hurdle before they become qualified.
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