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Solicitor super-exam could ‘devalue’ and ‘dumb down’ the law

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Legal establishment comes out against plan to scrap LPC and open firms to non-graduates

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Legal big-wigs have spoke out against the proposed solicitor super-exam, claiming it could “devalue” and “dumb down” the profession’s image.

Suggesting the exam “risked damaging the profession’s standing”, the Law Society’s chief executive, Catherine Dixon, highlighted concerns over non-graduates being able to sit the profession-wide entrance exam.

Taking to the pages of the Society-owned Law Gazette earlier this week, Dixon wrote at length about the proposals in an article dramatically entitled ‘Regulation: The end of our profession?’.

If the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) proposals are given the green light, the centralised assessment would effectively be an amalgamation of the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC). The exam, that would have to undertaken by all those wishing to qualify as a solicitor, would controversially also be open to those who have not attended university.

At the risk of LLB students being examined twice on core subjects, the SRA indicated last month that the exam could be incorporated into a standard undergraduate law degree.

Currently, those wishing to become a solicitor without having obtained a degree first have to follow the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) apprenticeship route. With a relatively low student up-take, coupled with the route to qualification taking over six years, this path isn’t deemed a threat to solicitor standards.

However, with the super-exam proposal gaining pace, and potentially offering a non-graduate fast-track to the profession, the solicitors’ representative body is gearing up for a fight.

Claiming the proposed regulatory changes would “devalue” the solicitor qualification, Dixon argued:

The SRA’s consultation on entry may result in solicitors not even needing a degree to qualify, which has the potential to damage both the profession’s reputation, and the envied global status of England and Wales as a centre of legal excellence and jurisdiction of choice.

Dixon claims that if the SRA-backed super-exam gets the go-ahead, it would be in direct contrast to other professions. Citing teaching and nursing as careers that require a degree level of education, the society boss fails to see why the legal profession should be any different.

Dixon’s comments signal a major u-turn by the Law Society with regards to its position on non-graduates entering the profession.

Rewind to 2013, and it was happy to jump aboard the apprenticeships’ bandwagon. In the wake of government support, then then president of the Law Society, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, said:

Alternative routes of entry into the legal profession are essential in order to enable new entrants to gain qualification through a modularised and work-based learning approach, since the costs of education and training through graduate routes continue to rise.

Despite this shift in position, Dixon has plenty of support from other members of the legal establishment.

Anthony Bradney, a legal academic and professor of law at Keele University, has also raised concerns regarding the new proposed exam format. In his a report, entitled “Dumbing Down the Law”, Bradney suggests that smaller firms would be in the firing line if the proposals were approved.

Claiming that larger corporate outfits could still market themselves on the back of the City brand, Bradney argues that it would be the high-street players that would struggle due to their heavy reliance on the title of solicitor. Bradney also notes that the bar has no plans to let people without degrees qualify as barristers.

Event: What will the proposed solicitor super-exam mean for law students and trainees? Apply to attend here.

13 Comments

Anonymous

If this was to come in to force where would it leave those who have already studied the LLB but yet to complete the LPC? Would these people be required to sit examinations in the core modules again to qualify as a solicitor?

(8)(0)

Anonymous

The SRA have said there will be a transition period of at least 2 years if it does go ahead.

I still think it is a very big IF it happens though. So far there has been little support for this examination route that I suspect the SRA will need to compromise or re-evaluate, meaning at best it is going to take at least another 18-24 months before things are agreed and then another year before anything is implemented.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I feel like this should be welcomed as an alternative route into law for mature candidates and other candidates not gone down the classic education route who may not have a degree / academic qualifications (but are no less capable / intelligent) As long as the exam is as stringent and demanding in standards as the LLB / GDL and LPC then surely it puts people on a level playing field? I also feel that the majority of young people would still undertake the traditional undergrad route into law so I’m not really sure how it’s a threat. As a mature candidate who does have a degree, but no a levels (a quite frankly awkward combination) I know from experience the plight of being constrained by the decisions / actions of your 16/17 year old self (ie 10 years ago!). I think the proposed solicitor examinations will enable more flexibility and diversity ( in terms of background) and as long as they are reflective of the standards required for becoming a solicitor then I struggle to see where the threat is. If the destination is the same and produces the same standards, then why does it matter which journey is taken to get there?

(9)(9)

Anonymous

What a ridiculous proposition. Solicitors must have demonstrated academic ability which, itself, can only be demonstrated through some form of graduation. Legal execs don’t get anywhere in good firms and this will be no different. Firms with any credibility will want the best they can get – and they will be those who have pursued the traditional route. Don’t be fooled into thinking this qualification will allow you to compete with graduates – not a chance.

(11)(9)

Anonymous

sweeping statements much?

I’d argue that firms with any real credibility will seek the best they can get from the most diverse range of applicants possible. A diverse workforce is good for business.

I don’t really see how you can talk about ‘this qualification’ when a) it’s not yet developed and b) there’s very little information about the content, delivery and standards of the qualification, so how can you make such a comparison?

Furthermore, new qualifications are generally developed due to a need for them or an anticipated long term benefit, and in consultation with the relevant stakeholders (i.e. firms, recruitment experts, industry bodies as well as regulatory bodies).

Degrees are great, don’t get me wrong. Academics are a very good indicator of strengths, abilities and competencies. But they’re not the bee all and end all, and there are things that degrees can’t / won’t teach you. Just like there will probably be things that this new proposed examination won’t be able to teach you. No single qualification can teach everything you need to know or practice to succeed, that’s why we do on the job training. That’s where most of the learning takes place.

(3)(5)

Anonymous

“Legal execs don’t get anywhere in good firms” I will stick my neck out and suggest that Dentons is quite a good firm. I am a qualified legal executive in their London office and doing very well thanks. I do exactly the same work as my solicitor colleagues – I am certainly not seen as inferior in terms of ability and my clients certainly don’t care that I am not a solicitor. I don’t get an equivalent salary but that’s just the way it is, qualified solicitors will always have the edge in that regard and many here would say rightly so. For that reason alone I may still take the opportunity to cross-qualify if and when my circumstances allow. Just because the proposed qualifying exam may be open to those like me who didn’t go to university, as long as it is at least to the same academic standard as currently exists then how is it dumbing down? I have supervised enough clueless trainees with 2:1s in my time to know the degree itself isn’t the be all and end all.

(16)(2)

Anonymous

I am only an Associate Legal Exec since the 1990’s and used to work for one of the top 10 (at that time). I was at the top of my game developing policy, procedure and litigation strategy for all claims in my area of specialism – above the solicitors working on similar files. Since then I went on to lead professional negligence teams of NQ solicitors, and then moved into advising on commercial litigation and eDiscovery. The high profile cases I work with continue to be the envy of many solicitors and partners. You can sit and pass as many exams as you like but it doesn’t mean you are any good at the job. I like to think employer’s are increasingly realising this, and picking staff based on merit and ability rather than qualification. Whilst admittedly Legal Executives struggle to gain recognition in the industry (mainly due to prejudicial attitudes such as yours) I have progressed my career, and achieved recognition through merit and ability. I now find myself very much in demand, constantly being headhunted by the larger law firms, and work under contracts which always have a golden handshake.

(13)(0)

Anonymous

I completely disagree with this comment
I did the legal apprentice route and was one of the first intakes back in 2013. The traditional route is not necessarily the answer in reality working in law is completely different to the tonnes of legal information that comes from an A level book or a university book… it is dependant on the nature of the job role.. but through experience and flexible training people can be trained into superb legal executives and not have the status of a solicitor!

(6)(0)

Rufus Obscurus

A few short points. Firstly, a degree is not an homogeneous thing. There are “good” degrees and not very good degrees, and the quality and rigour of examination varies tremendously by university. There has been recent academic commentary on Legal Futures to that effect.

Secondly, the LPC is not, from what I can tell, a well-thought-of qualification. I’m a barrister who spent 3 years practising as a solicitor a few years ago (I sat the QLTT as was). I can’t think of a single solicitor I knew then, or now in practice at the bar, who thinks that it is a difficult or worthwhile course. A new examination, administered centrally and free of commercial pressures on providers, has the potential to raise standards.

Finally, there are at least two QCs I know who are good, effective advocates and lawyers who don’t have degrees. I knew some very effective solicitors (now sadly either deceased or retired) who didn’t have degrees.

The Law Soc’s position smacks of misplaced, prejudiced pseudo-academic snobbery.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

I teach at a ‘University’ that offers both the LPC and GDL. You might therefore think that I have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Not so. The LPC and, to a lesser extent, the GDL are now provided by a multiplicity of institutions with varying standards and requirements. Consistency seems to me to be lacking and the notion that either course is assessed with sufficiently rigorous standards is almost absurd.

I sat the old LSF. Whilst it had its drawbacks, my recollection is that it was far more demanding of budding professionals than what is required now. It also ensured a level playing field across the country. A return to something similar is long overdue, although I would have thought that ant sensible student taking such an exam would first need to undertake an appropriate programme of study.

Put simply, our standards today are not high enough and we are ‘conning’ many young people into believing they have what it takes to make it in our profession when, in all truth, they don’t.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

What an ill informed article. I’m a chartered legal executive and have been qualified for 20 years. I do the same work as my solicitor colleagues. I am a Grade A fee earner. I can become a partner or apply for a job as a district judge. I don’t have a degree though.

(12)(1)

Anonymous

There are some ridiculous comments on here. I’m a legal exec who works in a top 20 firm at senior associate level. I have two degrees and three diplomas. CILEX was the preferred route to being a qualified lawyer due to spending a few years working in quasi law organisations. I work to the same career framework as solicitors and barristers. Are the old guard in fear of a merit based accessible route to qualification? I think so!

(5)(2)

Anonymous

There are some misguided comments here in relation to Chartered Legal Executives. I am a CILEx lawyer of five years PQE who does not have a law degree. I have supervised a number of trainee solicitors through their training contracts and they have all relied on the knowledge and experience I have attained as a CILEx lawyer. In addition, my manager is a CILEx lawyer who supervises seven solicitors, four chartered legal executives, a trainee solicitor, a paralegal and two support staff. He has not been held back. If some prospective lawyers wish to burden themselves with extensive debt in the hope that their job title (in itself) will result in a more illustrious career, that is a matter for them. Personally, I feel that I am better lawyer (and a “better-off” lawyer) for having managed working full time with part-time study.

(3)(0)

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