updated on 14 November 2018
Like them or loathe them, the new Solicitors Qualifying Examinations (SQE) are coming. Personally, I rather like them. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the GDL - both as a student at City University and as a lecturer and programme leader at BPP. I also have great affection for the LLB, having taught on and administered that course as well for several years. But I always thought from my student days that learning the “black letter law” for one year (GDL) or three (LLB) before getting round to applying it to practice on a one-year professional course afterwards (the LPC) was mad. To me, it was the equivalent of spending a year or more learning how to swim - the theory behind breaststroke, backstroke and crawl - in a library before belatedly getting into the water only after receiving a certificate saying that yes, indubitably you knew the theory behind swimming. Try getting a job as a lifeguard with that!
This point was brought home to me by the experience of Bar school, where initial anxiety about having spent so much less time studying law than LLB graduates swiftly gave way to the realisation that at two years distance from, say, the study of contract, these latter students often had more swatting up to do on the law than those with a mere nine months’ legal study behind us. Either way it seemed daft to get down to the practicalities of the law so late.
That’s why it was a luxury to have been able to design the MLaw degree at Pearson Business School from a blank sheet of paper. With the above reflections in mind, I was able to design an integrated Masters in Professional Legal Practice which genuinely fused the current academic and professional stages of legal training, with an eye on the ongoing Solicitors Regulation Authority review and the SQE which were likely to emerge from it in order to ensure it was future-proofed.
We thus emerged with a programme in which law is taught thematically, where the practical application of theory comes immediately after the former has been absorbed. By way of illustration, no sooner have students completed the law of obligations than they study civil litigation. Similarly, criminal litigation follows swiftly on the heels of the theoretical study of criminal law.
This can of course be challenging for students, who are tackling subjects they would normally undertake much later in their legal training relatively early. But it is arguably no less difficult than practically applying theoretical law studied in some cases three years earlier, with the Freshers’ Week hangover barely banished.
When they’ve finished, our students will emerge ready for professional legal practice, exempted from the requirements of the LPC (though not of course the BPTC, which is a very different kettle of legal fish). Unless of course they choose to jump off after three years with an LLB, armed with the legal knowledge and practical skills to enable them to undertake paralegal work, or indeed to work in a different commercial environment altogether. As we know, not everyone who studies law is so enamored of its charms that they wish to work in it professionally when they graduate. The key thing is to give students as many options as possible with the qualifications they obtain, at minimum cost. And of course, legal training our way is significantly cheaper than doing it the conventional way.
Entirely non-coincidentally, this approach also fits neatly with the new SQE regime. The thematic knowledge-based assessments at SQE 1 dovetail neatly with our framework as described above. We have deliberately incorporated the objective testing methodology proposed for these assessments into our own assessment matrix. Similarly, the practical assessment regime designed to test legal skills as SQE 2 mirrors our methodology in assessing these tools in a lawyer’s armory.
In a sense we were lucky, because we were able to design a programme from scratch to meet present and future needs rather than having to retrofit an existing model looking backwards to the future. But most importantly, we did it this way because we think it’s the right way to train the lawyers of tomorrow.
Ben Hughes is vice principal (industry engagement) at Pearson Business School, part of Pearson College London, the first higher education institution in the UK to be founded by a FTSE 100 company – Pearson Plc.
Find out what the Solicitors Qualifying Exam means for you on LawCareers.Net.