SQE, the new super-exam – will it be good news or bad news?

After much debate, criticism and conjecture, the controversial new ‘super-exam’ for solicitors, which has been proposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), is now going forward, despite continuing opposition.

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) looks likely to be formally introduced in 2020. If so, and if there are no further delays, any students starting a law degree from September 2020 onwards will have to take the exam in order to qualify as a solicitor. Students who have already started their law degree or similar qualification before that date will have the option of whether to take the SQE or not.

Kaplan, a leading US-based provider of educational services, will be responsible for developing and running the new exam but there’s still a question of whether it will be feasible to design the whole course in time for a starting date of September 2020. Hopefully, a schedule for the introduction of the new exam will be published soon. The new contract with Kaplan will run for eight years from the launch of the SQE. The company has previously run other legal courses, including the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). However, Kaplan won’t be providing any training related to the SQE.

What is the SQE and why is it needed?

The SQE is a two-part examination that’s designed to provide a common standard for people seeking to qualify as a solicitor. This means that all potential candidates will have to pass the same exam, which should lead to more consistency in the knowledge and capabilities of fully-fledged solicitors. The SRA claims: “The new model would introduce transparency and competitive pressures to drive up standards and reduce cost.”

The SRA first suggested the super-exam in 2015 and the concept has been the subject of many discussions and revisions since then. The cost of the new course hasn’t yet been decided, although the SRA claims it will be more cost-effective than the LPC, which has seen large increases in charges. Indeed, it now seems likely that both the LPC and the GDL will start to disappear once the SQE is in full swing.

The SRA believes that the new exam is needed to renew public confidence and trust in the abilities of solicitors, as all new entrants will have to meet the same, consistently high, standards of achievement before qualifying. The super-exam is a key element of the Authority’s ‘Training for Tomorrow’ scheme, which is looking at all aspects of the training and education of solicitors.

What are the main benefits of the SQE?

The SRA claims that the exam will provide ‘a more reliable and rigorous test of competence than is possible at present.’ The other key benefits that it believes that the SQE will confer include:

  • It will be easier for legal firms to decide whether their trainees are likely to meet the necessary standards, as these will now be more transparent.
  • The new approach will increase competition and drive up standards overall.
  • Students will no longer have to pay up to £15,000 for an LPC without any guarantee of getting a training contract at the end of it or of becoming a solicitor.
  • The SQE will give students more flexibility in deciding whether to do an apprenticeship (which will probably become a more rigorous course): take a degree and fulfil a training contract with a law firm; or follow an ‘equivalent means’ route. However, whichever way they choose, they will all have to pass the SQE before qualifying as a solicitor. This should remove the problem of ‘favoured’ routes, as everyone will ultimately need to reach the same standard..

The SRA believes that as well as setting new professional standards for the future, the SQE will help to protect the interests of both the legal profession and its clients – including members of the public.

What are the main concerns of the legal sector?

The Lawyer suggests that the new super-exam “will radically transform the legal education landscape.” This might or might not be seen as a good thing but it’s very clear that not every section of the legal profession has greeted the idea of the exam with open arms.

For instance, from the early days of the idea being mooted, the SRA has faced objections from many legal professionals and academics and law firms, as well as from industry bodies such as the Association of Law Teachers (ALT) and the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) of the Law Society.

The ALT has commented that it has “strong reservations about the SQE as a suitable form of assessment for aspiring solicitors.” The SRA has countered that it has carried out consultations and that an independent poll showed that 79% of the participants thought that all aspiring solicitors should pass the same final exam before being allowed to qualify.

However, the ALT suggests that the SRA is being misleading in some of its comments about the idea having general support. In its first of two consultations, 135 of 209 respondents disagreed with the tenet that there was support in principle for an independent professional assessment. Furthermore, the SRA’s own polls showed that 48% of the participants thought that the idea of a super-exam was a bad idea and only just over 20% thought it was a good idea. And 60% of respondents disagreed that the SQE will be a ‘robust and effective measure of competence.’

The JLD is more concerned with issues such as the speed with which the SQE is being introduced; the lack of information on the likely cost; the impact of the exam on social mobility; and the quality of any work that will qualify as experience. Meanwhile, leading academics have expressed concern about the impact of the exam on equality and diversity; the lack of evidence that it will be more cost-effective than the current situation; and the need for clarification on the actual SQE syllabus and curriculum.

However, academics have also said that the new exam might open up some interesting possibilities, such as a greater emphasis on apprenticeships; an opportunity for smaller firms to recruit graduates at an earlier stage; and an opportunity for exciting new changes to legal training.

The SRA’s response to the generally negative criticism is that the consultations have been useful and that it has taken various views on board. Enid Rowland, Chair of the SRA Board, sums up the Authority’s position: “We have listened to voices from every quarter and the model on which we are now consulting has evolved considerably. We are proposing a substantial, rigorous assessment, covering knowledge of the law, legal process, legal thinking, drafting, writing, presenting, negotiating, arguing a case and analysing claims and transactions. I believe that the new SQE, and the package of measures that sit alongside it, will serve individuals, employers and the profession well.”

There will now be a period of testing and development. It remains to be seen whether the final structure and content of the new exam will allay some of the fears and concerns that have been expressed.

What form will the exam take?

As mentioned previously, the SQE will have a two-phase approach, designed to test both the candidate’s legal knowledge and their practical skills. Students will have to pass both stages in order to qualify as a solicitor, having previously gained a degree or equivalent qualification and having had at least two years of experience of relevant legal work. They will also be assessed for being of a ‘satisfactory character and suitability’. Candidates will probably have to complete both stages of the SQE within a period of six years.

The first stage will involve tests of the student’s ability to use and apply legal knowledge. This stage can be taken before or after gaining the necessary legal experience. The latter can range from a training contract with a big City firm to relevant experience in up to four different organisations.

The first phase will include six assessments of the student’s ‘functioning legal knowledge’, covering aspects that range from principles of professional conduct through to criminal law and practice. There’s also a practical assessment to test the candidate’s legal skills. Students must pass this first stage before passing on to the more rigorous second phase.

The second stage of the SQE will be a more in-depth test of the candidate’s legal skills. There will be two sessions, each covering the same five practical skills but in two different practice contexts (which the candidate can choose). The skills include client interviews;  advocacy and persuasive oral communication; case and matter analysis; legal research and written advice; and legal drafting. The practice contexts include criminal practice; dispute resolution; property; wills and the administration of estates and trusts; and commercial and corporate practice.

Conclusion

Although a tentative date has been set for the introduction of the SQE in September 2020, there are still many issues that need to be resolved – not least the actual content of the exam.

There is little doubt that the new super-exam will have a major impact on the legal profession but there are still conflicting views about whether this impact will be positive or negative overall.

Perhaps this is only something that will only really be known once the new approach has been launched and the newly qualified solicitors settle down to working in their chosen profession. In the meantime, watch this space.

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