City concerned by SQE knowledge gap, report suggests
New research into the solicitor super-exam paints a dreary picture, with few firms and students feeling positive about the plans.
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is set to replace more traditional routes to qualification come 2020, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) hoping it will be a cheaper, but still rigorous, route to qualification.
Law students have expressed concern and confusion about the super-exam, and we bet they won’t be best pleased to hear firms’ views on the provision of training post-SQE.
As part of new research commissioned by BPP University, firms were asked to rank key skills that are not tested on the pre-training contract element of the SQE (SQE1). The majority of firms threw their weight behind skills such as drafting and advocacy, describing training in these areas as “important” or “very important”.
Despite their importance, these skills are not tested on the SQE as they are now on the Legal Practice Course (LPC) — a fact 63% of law firm respondents admitted they were unaware of. More practical skills which are now taught on the LPC are reserved for SQE2, which the SRA has implied will be taught after the training contract has been completed.
This may not be good news for aspiring solicitors. The majority (77%) of firms said they think graduates would require additional training beyond “testing preparation” for SQE1 before they enter the workplace. At “larger firms”, defined at those with more than £30 million annual turnover, 56% said that they would seek to provide training beyond this test preparation, while 18% of smaller firms agreed.
This comes weeks after Legal Cheek revealed firms are pushing to bring the entire super-exam before graduates’ period of work-based training, i.e. their training contract.
We reported in October that City law firms are understandably concerned by the disruption the new centralised exam may cause to their qualification process (a statement that’s been further evidenced by today’s latest research) and are hoping its training contract sandwich layout will be reconsidered. Perhaps more surprising is the SRA’s response to this concern. At a recent super-exam event, an SRA representative was asked about the requirement of work-based training. Enquiring about its length, the questioner asked: “Could this period be as little as one day?” The SRA spokesperson replied: That is “open to discussion”.
Jo-Anne Pugh, BPP’s strategic director of programme design and development, used the foreword to the research to express concern about firms’ approach to training. She said:
“Firms largely remain worried that important legal subject areas, previously taught on the LPC, will not be tested by the SQE and that key skills are now only going to be tested after a period of qualifying work experience. Consequently, several firms have indicated that they wish to compensate for these deficiencies with additional training in missing but crucial areas of the law and by requiring that key skills are taught before candidates can enter the workplace.”
She later added:
“[I]t may make sense for law firms and students to see the SQE as an essential ‘floor’ for legal training rather than a sufficient ceiling.”
Overall, the research, carried out by trendence UK, finds just 18% of firms are feeling positive about the new exam.
And law students don’t seem all that enthralled by the SQE either.
Of the law students surveyed, 43% said they’re “worried” about the changes being introduced by the SRA, as did 43% of non-law students asked. One law student said they’re worried the SQE will make it “too easy” to qualify, “thereby cheapening the work we have already put in”. Another said: “I’m already halfway through my LPC and I’m not sure if employers will now view the LPC as a lesser qualification.”
While worry seems to be a key feature here, a fair whack of students seem oblivious to the whole super-exam debacle.
Forty-four percent of law students and 42% of non-law students said they’re unaware of the qualification changes being introduced by the SRA. And, 20% of law students and 48% of law students don’t even know what the SRA is.
UPDATE: 12:30pm Monday 20 November
The SRA has now responded to the report. A spokesperson said:
“The report highlights many of the potential benefits of the SQE, including the opening up of the apprentice route into the profession. We have said that we will be working hard over the next three years to make sure students and aspiring solicitors are fully aware of the changes and transition arrangements, and the report supports our thinking. We look forward to working with training providers such as BPP to get the message out about these changes.”