EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Super-exam architect Julie Brannan on LLB-SQEs, new law schools and students teaching themselves

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By Aishah Hussain on

Scrapping the GDL and LPC is really gonna shake things up

SRA SQE super-exam
Julie Brannan speaking at last year’s Future of Legal Education and Training Conference

The debate surrounding the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has moved beyond the ‘Will it actually happen?’ stage towards questions about implementation. There’s no avoiding it, folks.

Preparations are underway at law firms and law schools across the country for the exam which will replace traditional routes to qualification. The Legal Practice Course (LPC) and the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) are toast once it comes into force in September 2021.

It’s an exciting time for Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) education and training chief Julie Brannan, the brains behind the SQE and spearhead of the biggest shake-up of legal education in a generation. “We’re dealing with lots of practical questions to ensure the detail is right. There is a lot of preparation going on which I am very pleased to see,” she told me in an interview ahead of her appearance at the Future of Legal Education and Training Conference in May, for which Early Bird ticket sales close at midnight tonight.

For students seeking to enter the legal profession during this time of change, what does it mean?

Although large law firms cover the cost of their future trainees’ GDL and LPC fees, and will continue to do so for the SQE, the majority of students self-fund these courses. Legal Cheek’s LPC Most List shows a student in London can pay northwards of £16,000 for the year-long course required to practise as a solicitor in England & Wales. One of the overriding objectives behind the SQE is to reduce this cost. In November, the SRA projected the two-part exam is likely to cost between £3,000-£4,500. SQE1, which focuses on black letter law is likely to cost between £1,100 and £1,650, and SQE2, which tests practical legal skills such as advocacy, is likely to cost between £1,900 and £2,850.

But these amounts are for the exams only. Preparatory course fees will be on top of that. No one is sure exactly how much they will cost, but when you put both figures together some have suggested that you might be looking at a greater amount than students pay at present for the LPC. So why bother bringing in the SQE at all? they ask.

That’s not an entirely fair proposition. As Brannan points out, the SQE will create lots of different options, and present opportunities for future lawyers to potentially save a lot of money — with new routes including a combined LLB-SQE that some universities are already working on and standalone budget SQE courses.

“There will be a wide range of courses available to students and this will impact cost. The cheapest option is likely to be a law degree with the integrated SQE and that will cost within the £9,000 fee cap which is cheaper than the LPC as it stands,” she explains.

Two tier fears

However, it seems likely that the big corporate law firms — which account for a significant percentage of new trainees entering the profession each year and influence the market because they are seen by students as high status — will design their own bespoke SQE courses in association with existing providers such as BPP Law School and the University of Law that look very similar to the LPC in its present form (and cost the same and perhaps even more!). That would be fine for these firms’ future trainees who are benefitting from law school sponsorship deals, but what about students without training contracts who may feel under pressure to complete these same prep courses because they are seen as market-leading and more likely to lead to a job? On this, Brannan says:

“I think we will see a range of different provision emerging. At the very top-end there may be gold-plated courses designed for the particular needs of City law firms. These firms recruit up to two years in advance and provide funding so it’s up to them how best to prepare their future trainees.”

Tickets are available for Legal Cheek’s Future of Legal Education and Training Conference 2019 at the early bird rate of £190 + VAT until midnight tonight (Thursday 31 January)

As for law firms outside this elite bracket, Brannan, who has spent the last few days visiting various outfits across the country, comments: “If you think about the sector as a whole, it may well be the case that different law firms have different requirements — it’s no longer one size fits all.” Many of these firms view the new solicitor training regime as an opportunity to recruit in a different way that could reduce their training costs and allow them access to a more diverse pool of potentially hungrier and more street-smart students. Brannan continues: “The SQE provides the scaffolding for law firms to recruit well-rounded individuals from a wider cohort. It’s a real gain for the profession. Some have already dipped a toe in the water with apprenticeships — they liked what came through the door and are open to exploring new pathways,” she reflects.

But what of the risk of creating a two-tier solicitors’ profession, divided according to whether new entrants did a fancy elite firm SQE or a budget version of the course?

The main way that the SRA is seeking to mitigate this risk is through plans to publish the different SQE providers’ exam results. This would mean prospective SQE students could make purchasing decisions on the basis of provider performance rather than simply perceived status. A new course provider, for example, could be shown to be getting better grades than the long-established law schools. “It’s a very positive thing,” says Brannan, “that degree of transparency will help universities and training providers learn and improve.”

It is probably also fair to say that students’ A-level and undergraduate university grades, and the reputation of the undergraduate university they attended, will — rightly or wrongly — continue to be more influential than where they did the LPC/SQE (and what they scored on it) in graduate recruitment decisions.

New law schools and a roaring illicit trade in course materials?

Where the SQE is likely to have a big impact is in increasing the level of competition among providers, which would over time should contribute to the further driving down of costs. Currently, LPC providers set the assessments and award the qualification. That requires substantial resources and infrastructure. But the SQE will be centrally assessed, with the SRA last year choosing global education giant Kaplan, which closed down its UK law school operations in 2016, to handle exams and marking in an eight-year long deal. This takes away a considerable barrier to entry to the market for new law schools who lack the resources to run assessment processes.

One of the new entrants, for example, is set to be US-based legal education provider BARBRI, whose New York and California Bar prep course are well-known globally. Other players with comparable track records are rumoured to be circling the market with interest. We may also see some start-ups in this space.

Legal Cheek reckons we’ll also be hearing stories from students that have taught themselves. We might even see candidates sharing course materials with their friends post-completion of the SQE. We put this to Brannan and she said:

“The course providers may include a clause on this as part of their contractual arrangements when they sell materials, but this is not something we would regulate. The idea that students could teach themselves the course and all they’ll need is textbooks may be deluded or it may be right. Who can tell? We are providing the opportunity to put that to the test.”

Another aspect of the new super-exam that has sparked controversy is the form it will take. SQE1 will be a computer-based, multiple-choice assessment. Durham Law School dean Thom Brooks, who spoke at last year’s Conference, labelled this as “not the most effective way of discerning ability” as he expressed concern about a new era of “factory-produced” wannabe lawyers being taught to pass standardised assessments. What are Brannan’s thoughts on the proposed exam style?

“We know that MCQs or ‘single best answer’ questions can test the competencies required for SQE1. It is already used for the QLTS and Multistate Bar Examination and used widely in the assessment of medical, dental and pharmacy students. It’s not a cutting-edge form of assessment. When designing the assessment we have to ensure we are using the right methodology. What we are testing is candidates’ ability to take fundamental legal principles and apply them in a practical context — in situations we’d expect a newly-qualified solicitor to encounter, and we can absolutely use MCQs for that purpose.”

Brannan will be headlining the after-lunch SQE discussion at this year’s Conference in May. What are her next steps between now and then? “We’re ploughing ahead with the piloting phase,” she replies. The SRA launched a campaign last year recruiting student ‘guinea pigs’ to test the new exam. “We had a really good response to that,” reveals Brannan. “Kapan ended up with more applicants than we needed which meant we were able to recruit a representative cross-section from those that applied. It shows that students are willing to invest their time to get the exam right,” she says. The pilot for SQE1 will take place between 20-22 March, while Kaplan is planning to pilot SQE2 towards the end of this year.

Will there be a big reveal at the Conference in May? “I suppose there will be an update,” teases Brannan, “it will be an opportunity to discuss next steps with plentiful discussion through a Q&A.”

Julie Brannan will be speaking at Legal Cheek’s Future of Legal Education and Training Conference which takes place on Wednesday 22 May 2019 at Kings Place London. Tickets are available at the early bird rate of £190 + VAT until midnight tonight (Thursday 31 January).

Students interested in attending (we do not charge students for attending our events) should contact us about becoming part of Legal Cheek‘s campus ambassador programme.

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