Almost everyone reading this will have heard of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) and how it is currently coming into effect to replace the traditional LPC/GDL route to qualifying as a solicitor. However, this blog will not be covering any substantive or logistic elements of the SQE, instead it will focus on the reasons why it was created.
The SQE is being introduced as part of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) Training for Tomorrow programme. This programme came about in response to the 2013 report on the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) conducted by the SRA, Bar Standards Board (BSB) and ILEX Professional Standards (IPS). The main takeaway from the LETR was that it called for a greater focus of regulatory attention on the standards required of solicitors both at qualification and on an ongoing basis.
In 2015 the SRA published a new Statement of Solicitor Competence. This competence defines the standards required to practice as a solicitor and therefore the competences that aspiring solicitors must demonstrate in order to qualify. Following the release of the new statement, the SRA then reviewed the qualification process to develop a mechanism for assessing the statement of competence prior to qualification. This review (the aforementioned Training for Tomorrow programme) culminated in the development of the SQE.
Why has the SRA introduced the SQE?
You will have all heard of the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, so the important question to ask is what did the SRA see to be broken?
The general issue the regulator had with the previous routes to qualification was that there was no standard basis on which to measure the quality of qualified solicitors. Since there was no common standard of solicitors, the calibre of services offered by solicitors was subject to fluctuation, meaning that the SRA’s job of quality control of legal services became much harder.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England said that the current (prior to the introduction of the SQE) quality assessment system did not “provide direct assurance about the standard of awards made to students or their broad comparability”. This statement is certainly supported by the facts. Some LPC providers have success rates in excess of 90%, while others are below 50%. Some undergraduate law schools require A* or As at A-level to be admitted, while others will accept students with a majority of Cs and Ds. All of these factors combined with the development of new pathways to qualification, such as apprenticeship and equivalent means training, mean that there is no longer a standard basis on which to measure the skill of a newly qualified solicitor. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are more than 100 institutions offering qualifying law degrees, 33 offering the GDL and 26 offering the LPC. When considering the separate routes, and the number of different institutions offering these routes, it is easy to see that any problems inherent in the qualification system will quickly accumulate.
The SQE therefore aims to remedy these issues by introducing its two-part examination, with one part focused on an assessment of knowledge, and the other focused on an assessment of skills. Whether the SRA has chosen the correct remedy remains to be seen, after all, while an assessment of knowledge can be standardised, an assessment of professional skills is arguably too subjective to provide accurate results.