The super-exam uncertainty that lies ahead

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By Katie King on

The SQE presents an opportunity ‘to do something dynamic and innovative’, says ULaw chief Peter Crisp, if a clear framework can be agreed

Peter Crisp, The University of Law Pro Vice Chancellor External

Cheaper, less risky for students and better for diversity: the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) had plenty good to say about its new solicitor super-exam when it was formally announced last year. Now, one year on and with just two years to go before the Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE) is set to be rolled out nationwide, how much more do we know about the new legal training regime now than we did then?

Though the Legal Services Board (LSB) has provisionally approved the exam, we’re missing reams of operational detail and that’s concerning The University of Law Pro Vice Chancellor External Peter Crisp. For starters, “the exam is completely uncosted”, he tells me over breakfast in the City one rainy morning, “we’ve seen no evidence it’ll be cheaper than the current LPC”.

Postgrad solicitor courses currently cost up to £15,000, Legal Cheek‘s LPC Most List shows, and are prohibitive to many aspiring solicitors who don’t have sponsorship from a firm. However Crisp, a legal education veteran who recently crossed over to lead ULaw after two decades at the helm of arch-rival BPP, says it’s difficult to see how the SQE would be much cheaper than this.

The SRA will be splitting the SQE into two parts. SQE1 will test black-letter law and may take the form of a computer-based, multiple-choice assessment, which Crisp says should be cheap to deliver, possibly in the hundreds of pounds. The SQE2 will cost more: it has ten assessments in five skills and requires face-to-face assessment by a qualified solicitor as well as the help of an actor for its client interviews and advocacy parts. It could cost £5,000 or so to sit both exams, but this doesn’t include the prep course costs needed to sit the exam, which could total thousands too.

While SQE costs may come in at similar levels to the LPC, Crisp concedes this sum will be spread out across the two SQE parts. Under the current system, students may fork out for the LPC and never secure a training contract nor qualify at the end of it — the ‘LPC bottleneck’. By contrast, the SRA advocates part one of the SQE to be completed pre and part two to be completed post training contract.

The Legal Cheek 2018 LPC Most List

This should be less financially risky, as students need only pay for the cheaper exam before they get into a firm and start earning. If they never find a training contract, they’ve forked out less money than would’ve been spent on the LPC.

With practical skills not tested on SQE1, Crisp suggests that asking students to complete only this section of the exam pre-training contract will produce worse day-one trainees, who show up to firms without a postgrad qualification. He says:

“Working as closely as we do with law firms we know that they will want to maintain the same high level of training that our LPC delivers. They will not want to recruit people who on day one of the training contract know less than they do now and have fewer skills. The SQE is a retrograde step for the depth of understanding law firms want from their trainees. SQE1 is not a qualification, you don’t get a certificate — it’s just part of the SQE, so you’re not even part-qualified by having done it.”

Small wonder, then, that some City law firms are pushing for future trainees to complete SQE1 and SQE2 pre-training contract, as Legal Cheek revealed last year. The SRA claims there will be a higher failure rate unless students sit the exam post-training contract, when they have more experience.

Crisp, again, is unconvinced by this, and gives the following example of a trainee finishing their two-year work experience without going anywhere near advocacy, then being tested on this in SQE2. This particular scenario seems to undermine the regulator’s claim that aspiring solicitors will garner the skills needed to pass SQE2 during their training contract. Trainees may, Crisp thinks, need to complete weekend and evening classes in prep for SQE2 alongside their training contracts — the thought of which probably won’t delight already at-capacity City trainees.

“Despite our reservations, the SQE does present an opportunity to do something dynamic and innovative,” Crisps says. ULaw’s approach is to amend its undergraduate law degree so that it’s SQE-compliant and to offer postgraduate courses that encompass SQE content.

On the former, the amount of SQE content to cram in means it’s “likely” non-essential, elective modules will be stripped from students’ law degrees, the super-exam’s effect being like a “straightjacket”. At postgraduate level ULaw will produce three types of masters degree courses, one offering more law modules, one offering business modules, and one offering lawtech modules. All will have SQE1 and 2 test prep included, meaning students would, theoretically, be ready to sit SQE2 pre-training contract (seems a lot like the LPC, doesn’t it?)

Though only one organisation will be given the tender to run the super-exam, ULaw will not be the only law school offering postgrad preparation for it.

The SRA is not proscribing routes to qualification nor regulating the SQE prep courses, meaning candidates are free to choose which courses they do and at what provider. Different courses will suit law degree holders and non-law degree holders, which differ in content and, crucially, price.

This is where fears about diversity and social mobility come in.

Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds or students who are less informed may, understandably, punt for cheaper courses which cover the “regulatory minimum” of SQE content. Richer students or those with swish training contracts lined up may complete a more expensive prep course, leading to a, seriously concerning, “two-tier profession”.

Find out more about The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference on 23 May

For those students who have done budget courses, trying to secure a training contract in, say, family law, will prove tough if they have just studied basic SQE content (family law doesn’t feature). Even if you do complete your training, which no longer needs to take place in one firm, you may still struggle to qualify into a firm having never studied its area of practice. Is the SRA merely moving the LPC bottleneck until after qualification?

Against this backdrop of concern and with time ticking away, Crisp urges some SQE realism. He says:

“The University of Law will be ready if the SQE is introduced in 2020 though we think the timescales for launch are probably unrealistic. We don’t yet know who the assessment provider is but we should know in the next few weeks. Then there’ll be about 18 months to design and prepare, as the SQE will have to be tested thoroughly in early 2020 ready for launch later in the year. We think it’s very, very tight.”

Whether the SQE is launched in 2020 or later, Crisp remains uneasy about how things might pan out.

SQE1’s content “leaves a lot to be desired”, the lack of proscribed routes will lead to a “market free-for-all” and Crisp has “serious concerns” about the new exam’s potential impact on social mobility and diversity. Law students seem to share these worries: more than half of respondents to our legal education survey think the super-exam is a bad idea, and less than a fifth said it was a good thing.

Interestingly, the same students rated the quality of practical skills training over course cost, and also want more legal tech training — suggesting that ULaw’s new LPC replacement masters courses are well pitched.

Crisp’s feel for what both students and the profession want clearly remains strong. Now for the considerable challenge of putting all the theory into practice.

The full results of Legal Cheek’s student legal education survey will be announced at The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference next week.

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