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A single, centralised exam must surely be fairer on prospective solicitors, says Jean-Yves Gilg

3 May 2017

When the invitation to the SRA briefing came through, there were raised eyebrows around the Solicitors Journal office: ‘It’s happening’. In truth, it was unlikely the SRA would ever backtrack on its legal training reform proposals despite the outcry they have caused. Academics have been vehemently opposed, training providers lukewarm, and firms mostly indifferent. But asking why the regulator proceeded with a consultation it was mostly going to ignore is a moot point. The solicitors qualifying examination is going ahead.

By 2020, it will be out with the GDL and LPC, and in with SQE, the new single set of exams with central assessment at its heart. There are still areas of concern and lots to finalise, and the SRA must get this right if it doesn’t want to sacrifice generations of future professionals on the altar of progress. But there’s also a fair bit to be positive about.

Initial proposals were silent about the requirement for a degree or the need for specific practical experience. This prompted hundreds of negative responses. These issues have now been addressed in the most unequivocal way. All prospective solicitors must have a degree – although not necessarily a law degree – or equivalent qualification, or experience.

Last month, the Bar Standards Board took a different view, making a law degree or graduate diploma in law a prerequisite for all future barristers. It’s a decision that makes sense in the context of the Bar’s current professional training pathway. For solicitors, SQE1 will test the same areas of knowledge as the current GDL. Candidates will need to prepare just as intensively. The SRA has been very clear about that. In all likelihood, preparation courses for SQE1 will look very much like a re-badged GDL.

Some warned nevertheless that this would turn training providers into cramming joints. This is disingenuous. There is no special glamour or professional satisfaction about the GDL. People work hard but it’s a mechanical process: get as much law in your head as will allow you to pass the exam and then hop onto the LPC. The same will be true under the new regime, only the skills tested under the old LPC will now be assessed under SQE2.

Next, there will also be a compulsory training period of no less than two years. Realistically, this will take place between SQE1 and SQE2. So altogether, the SQE timeline looks very much like the current one, with the additional requirement of SQE2 – the exit exam that most stakeholders said was needed and that the SRA is now putting in place. Many City firms will want their trainees to top up their skills in line with their specific business needs; they already do this via tailored LPCs, so there should be little change there.

On this basis alone, it’s difficult to fault the principle of SQE. Will it be cheaper? One would hope so, although that is possibly the wrong question. The so-called ‘LPC gamble’ is pure madness. Nobody should embark on the LPC without a training contract. Work as a paralegal instead, gain the experience and, further down the line, get your firm to support you. This is what SQE should facilitate, with a major emphasis on apprenticeships as a realistic alternative for those from less privileged backgrounds.

Whether under the current system or under SQE, those with access to funds and connections will succeed. The real question is whether SQE will deliver on diversity and social mobility. Will the apprenticeship levy be enough of an incentive for firms to start looking outside the traditional graduate pool? The SRA, at least, is opening the door. It has promised to carry out research and collect data. That’s a lot for a regulator, even if some of the impetus comes from outside Birmingham’s Cube.

A central assessment has to be fairer on all candidates. How it is designed is the only issue – but it’s a critical one. The SRA alone cannot come up with a suitable model and process. It has shown that it can listen. Course providers could do worse than bring their unique knowledge of training and designing tests to the discussion table.

Jean-Yves Gilg is editor-in-chief of Solicitors Journal

@jeanyvesgilg

This blog was first published on Solicitors Journal on 3 May 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission

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