The legal profession is synonymous with quality, and is largely respected the world over. This is in no small part due to the rigorous training prospective lawyers are required to undertake before they enter into practice. In the UK, the quickest qualification route to practicing as a solicitor is a 6-year process, encompassing a 3-year university law degree, a year’s Legal Practice Course (LPC) in law school and a 2-year training contract with a law firm or a company. This system has remained largely unchanged for decades…and has resulted in a significant lack of diversity in the legal professional. But now that is all about to change.
In recognition of its efforts, the Facilitate4Me Change Practitioner for April 2017 goes to… the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), for proposing changes to the solicitor qualification to improve standards and promote diversity within the profession.
Under the new scheme, the LPC will be replaced with the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), a centralised examination that all prospective lawyers must take regardless of the education provider they choose to study with. The proposals are due to takeeffect from August 2019 and aim to tackle the following dissatisfaction with the status quo:
Inconsistent pass rates
Currently, approximately 110 universities assess students on the LPC, without a uniform criterion as to what standard of work will merit a particular grade. Consequently, although the content taught on the LPC is the same for all students in the country, students have “completely different exams”, according to Julie Brannan, director for education and training at the Solicitors Regulation Authority SRA. The pass rates as a result are highly inconsistent, making it difficult, according to the SRA, “to ensure all new solicitors are assessed to the same standard”. The proposed SQE changes “would provide a more reliable and rigorous test of competence than is possible at present” thereby providing confidence to clients and the public that theregulator (SRA) has adequately checked the competence of solicitors.
According to Lawyer 2B, costs for the year’s Legal Practice Course (LPC) varies between £7,7700 (Leeds Beckett University) to £15, 240 (BPP London and University of Law London). The London locations are generally perceived to be of a higher quality and the preferred pathways to securing the all-important training contracts. The SRA proposes that the new SQE “would introduce transparency and competitive pressures to drive up standards and reduce cost”.
Diversity and access to the profession
The LPC is only useful if a student is able to gain a training contract to become a trainee solicitor as a result. According to the Guardian, approximately 9,000 people complete the LPC every year but only 5,500 training contracts are available. Meanwhile, the majority of training contracts are bestowed on students from a minority of universities. A survey conducted by Chambers Student last year, found that 81.4% of trainee solicitors (i.e. with training contracts) studied at a Russell Group university, with the Oxbridge graduates making up a fifth of this number. This is in spite of the fact that the number of Oxbridge students represent only 1% of the UK population. It is fair to say that the legal profession is not diverse.
The new SRA proposals are designed to broaden access to the profession and ensure that talent and work ethic, not background, define success. This will be achieved by scrapping the requirement to undergo a training contract before qualifying as a solicitor, instead replacing it with the need to complete a ‘substantial period of workplace training’ – acquired through a diverse selection of routes including: a formal training contract, employment in a student law clinic, working as an apprentice or paralegal, or through a placement as part of a sandwich university degree.
Like in any change initiative, the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo and the attractiveness and practicality of the proposed solution are part of the tools to overcoming resistance. The other element which have to be addressed is the perceived cost of the change proposal as seen from the eyes of stakeholders. Below is a selection of concerns from some key groups:
- Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society, argues that whilst he supports a centralised assessment, ‘it is essential that any new central assessment is set at the right level and does not result in the current high standards being diminished’.
- Bryan Scant, chairof the Junior Lawyers Division, doubts that the SQE will actually result in cheaper fees for students stating “the SRA hasn’t said how much the fees for the [final] exams will be. They clearly expect people to save and pay for it themselves, which is not always possible if you have course fees to repay or are working in a firm that is unable to fund the exams. This will not increase social mobility”.
- An independent report commissioned by the SRA themselves also warns that whilst the SQE could increase social mobility, a wider range of choice of entry routes could make routes to qualification harder to navigate, especially for those students without access to good advice thereby leading to a ‘tiered system’ where some legal employers will give continued (or possibly increased) currency to traditional pathways to the detriment of others.
No doubt that the SRA will engage extensively with stakeholders to address these concerns as they progress with their plans to improve standards, maintain consistency and promote diversity within the profession. Everyone at Facilitate4Me wishes them the best of luck!
Ebony is 2:1 Law graduate from the University of East Anglia, and a BPP Law School Student. Passionate about law and sports, she is currently pursuing a challenging and exciting commercial legal career, to become a Sports Lawyer.