Last October, Woodfines published a Blog discussing the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) second consultation on the proposed Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The consultation closed on 9 January 2017 and, on 25 April 2017, the SRA confirmed that it will push ahead with its plans to introduce the SQE.
The finalised proposals, outlined below, will come into force in 2020. What this will mean for you as a current or prospective law student, will depend upon when you embark(ed) upon your legal studies. Our summary below will hopefully provide some clarity as to how this might affect you.
Recap: What are the proposals?
Currently, in order to qualify into the profession, aspiring solicitors must gain a qualifying law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a period of work based learning, which in most cases is satisfied by completion of a two year training contract (or ‘period of recognised training’, as it is currently known).
Full details of the SQE can be found here, will completely replace this system. In summary, aspiring solicitors will need to:
- Have passed Stages 1 and 2 of the SQE;
- Have completed a substantial period of workplace training (‘substantial’ is currently undefined, but the SRA have suggested that this will ‘probably [be] 24 months, and certainly no less than 18 months’);
- Be educated to degree level (in any subject) or have equivalent experience; and
- Meet the character and suitability requirements.
The first stage of the SQE will involve assessment on six areas of substantive legal knowledge and one area focusing on practical skills. Stage 1 will (generally) take place prior to any workplace experience and, therefore, will likely operate in a similar fashion to the GDL. However, it appears that the examination format will be considerably different to the current GDL format – Stage 1 will be assessed via computer-based testing, to include a mixture of single best answer, extended matching and multiple choice questions.
The second stage will involve assessment of practical legal skills, comprising 5 legal skills’ assessments (Client Interviewing, Advocacy/Persuasive Oral Communication, Case and Matter Analysis, Legal Research and Written Advice, and Legal Drafting) and 5 ‘practice context’ assessments (Criminal Practice; Dispute Resolution; Property; Wills and the Administration of Estates and Trusts; Commercial and Corporate Practice). The main difference between this and the ‘LPC route’ is that, in most cases, the bulk of work experience will be undertaken prior to sitting Stage 2 examinations.
Work experience can be acquired in one of several ways, including via a formal training contract, experience as a paralegal or at a law school clinic, or even via a sandwich degree placement. Once enough work experience has been completed aspiring solicitors will have to take the Stage 2 examinations in order to qualify. Both Stage 1 and Stage 2 assessments will be independent and uniform, meaning that all students will take the same exams.
Which route to take?
In light of these changes, the question on many students’ lips is ‘how will this affect me’? The answer depends upon when you undertake your legal training.
The SRA intends to implement its proposals in September 2020, meaning that the SQE will not be available to students before this time. They have also stressed the need for a ‘gradual and inclusive’ process which ‘enables candidates to choose between qualifying under the current system or the SQE for a number of years’. Therefore if you are a current LLB, GDL or LPC student or graduate you will be able to qualify under the ‘old’ LPC route.
Likewise, if you start your LLB, GDL or LPC between now and August 2020, then you will actually have the option of qualifying under the old route or the new one.
However, if you start your legal training after August 2020 then, subject to any delays in the SRA’s schedule, you will likely be required to qualify under the SQE route.
Status of the LLB, GDL, and LPC under the new route
The introduction of the SQE also raises questions regarding the future status and utility of the LLB, GDL, and LPC – what, if anything, will happen to these subjects and will anything replace them?
It seems clear that the GDL and LPC will disappear from Law School curriculums entirely. The SRA has explicitly stated that one of its main objectives in introducing the SQE is to ‘remove the LPC gamble’, in which some students pay upwards of £12,000 on LPC course fees in anticipation of obtaining a training contract. Once the SQE system is fully operational, passing Stage 1 and 2 exams will be required to qualify regardless of whether you have already completed the GDL and LPC. Therefore it is likely that law schools will simply stop offering these courses. It is also likely that law schools will attempt to replace the GDL and LPC with equivalent SQE preparatory courses. At what point this transition occurs is unfortunately unknown. You are therefore advised to make enquiries with your prospective law school prior to admission.
By contrast, it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which the LLB is no longer offered by law schools – given its academic requirements, the LLB is still seen as a strong undergraduate degree for lawyers and non-lawyer alike. However, it is thought that Stages 1 and 2 will be far more vocational in content than the traditionally academic LLB. As such, the SQE will likely contain content that is not currently covered on undergraduate syllabuses and vice versa. How law schools deal with this distinction between academic and vocational is yet to be seen. Some law schools will likely incorporate Stage 1 into the undergraduate syllabus, whereas others might prefer to keep the SQE separate. In either case, you should carefully review university prospectuses to ensure that the university you are applying to is offering the type of course that you want to undertake.
Is there a preferred route?
The obvious question from all of this is, given the choice, which route should you take? Ultimately this will depend upon your own views on the SQE. Some commentators, for example, believe that law firms will be put off hiring inexperienced candidates who have only undertaken Stage 1 prior to beginning work. It is argued that they will therefore gravitate more towards those students who have studied the LLB than those who have taken the purely SQE route. This is arguably backed up by the responses to the SRA’s second consultation, which (for example) saw 60% of all respondents, and 70% of law firms, either disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the statement that ‘the proposed SQE is a robust and effective measure of competence’. However others suggest that the costs associated with undertaking the SQE will be much cheaper, and therefore the ‘gamble’ will be more palatable. Unfortunately this is all very speculative at present, but we will no doubt learn more about how firms will view the new route over the coming months. Make sure to keep an eye on developments.