2021 – the year of the SQE. For better or for worse?

SQE in a nutshell

As many in the legal industry are aware, next year sees the arrival of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

The SRA will introduce a common assessment for all aspiring solicitors to ensure consistency of standards at the point of qualification by using a single national licensing exam. The SQE replaces the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and in removing some of these costly barriers to qualification, is said to promote diversity in the legal industry. This is of course to be applauded, although at this stage there are still a few concerns on the overall long-term impact on those from lower income families.

Another aim of the SQE is to remove the “bottleneck” of qualification, given the difficulty many candidates have in securing training contracts – an all too familiar story to us at Accutrainee. This is something that is core to our purpose and the very reason we founded our business, creating bespoke training contracts which offer flexibility to both legal service providers and graduates. For the past eight years we have successfully employed great trainees and paralegals and seconded them to in-house legal departments and law firms, helping aspiring solicitors to qualify in the process. We know how well this works from both a client and a trainee perspective.

So from Autumn 2021, the SQE will form a significant portion of the qualification criteria in England and Wales. Individuals will have to pass both stages of the SQE assessment: SQE1 on legal knowledge and SQE2 on practical and legal knowledge skills. They will also have to complete two years of qualifying work experience (QWE) which replaces the training contract. QWE can take place in up to four different organisations with each placement being signed off by a solicitor who is familiar with the work they have done.

Although SQE2 was intended to test skills learnt during the QWE, there is in fact no requirement on when the QWE can be completed. In fact, the SRA are encouraging students to complete some of their QWE before the SQE is even introduced: https://www.sra.org.uk/trainees/qualifying-work-experience/qualifying-work-experience-trainees/.

In my mind, this raises some serious concerns around the quality of QWE for candidates, a point well made in Greg Smith’s insightful JLD blog, “Cutting through the Gordian Knot of SQE” – worth a read here. Greg brilliantly highlights some of the concerns and confusions surrounding the SQE but I am hopeful that through innovation and adaptation we will overcome these, I think we must.

Change is the law of life  

The SQE represents a new route to qualification, a major change for the legal industry. We know, as QWE trailblazers at Accutrainee, that diversity of practical work experience ensures trainees develop the skills needed by our next generation of lawyers, equipping them with a mix of commercial and technical skills and a focus on service delivery and managing client needs and expectations.

We see so many talented trainees who are stuck in the “bottleneck” who then join Accutrainee and go on to train and enjoy success through our bespoke programme. Opening up regulation and reducing red tape is a huge tick in the box for enabling innovation. But we must also ensure that we maintain the legal profession’s appeal. If the profession is opened up to the extent that the only one key to entry is having demonstrated the minimum standard of competence, the legal profession may begin to lose its lustre. We may struggle to entice the best candidates to join the industry?

Quality is everyone’s responsibility

Having worked with trainees now for nearly a decade, I have seen first-hand how they develop and what they need. Which is guidance, assurance and time. All of which are oddly lacking and unrequired by the SRA in the new qualifying process.  

The sign off process for the QWE is that trainees have simply had the opportunity to develop some or all of the prescribed competences for solicitors during the work experience. Surely organisations should be made accountable for the training they deliver with clear guidance from the SRA on what best practice looks like? The SQE will allow any ‘legal work’ to count as QWE regardless of the level of supervision or the quality of work. So a trainee who sits with a highly experienced solicitor who invests time in their learning, training and developing will be considered exactly the same as a trainee sitting with 50 other trainees completing a heavily repetitive document review task with no real supervision.

Does this essentially create the competency and consistency we are seeking to achieve?

Possible exploitation is another concern. At Accutrainee, we believe that taking on a trainee and being instrumental to a young professional’s development should be a privilege and one that is taken seriously. We need to guard against the possibility of trainees being left to fend for themselves in understanding what competencies and skills they need to attain and whether they have accomplished them. With no organisation ultimately responsible for overseeing their QWE, this could be a risk.

So with many of these barriers down, should we be doing more to ensure the quality of QWE as part of the new SQE?

And on those bottlenecks…

Whilst a bottleneck of any kind is never desirable, it is worth acknowledging that in this instance it’s a factor of a highly sought-after career path. Not everyone gets in, so yes, this does mean that success can be elusive and coveted. Removing this bottleneck could impact on how we attract the best talent. We absolutely need to support trainees to reach their dreams and find ways to improve access to the legal profession whilst ensuring we do not compromise industry standards for both the sake of our clients and the future of the profession.

No progress without change

So as the saying goes, progress is impossible without change, and a change with the new SQE is welcome on many levels. The SQE undoubtedly looks set to create exciting opportunities for significant improvements and innovation in the way we prepare and shape our future lawyers.

With the first SQE trainees qualifying in 2022, it is a watching brief as to what works well and where we might need more thought. It’s encouraging that the SRA and the Legal Services Board are mindful of this and open to continual development. If that is genuinely the case, then I am optimistic that in time and with tweaking, the SQE could become the new jewel in the profession’s crown.

Bring on 2021, the year of the SQE!

Susan Cooper

CEO and Founder, Accutrainee

susan.cooper@accutrainee.com

If you are interested in working with one of our talented trainees in your business, please drop us a line on info@accutrainee.com.

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