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How the SQE shifts power from law firms to students

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‘No longer can a law firm dangle a training contract in front of paralegals or insist that getting a job in a firm’s onshore centre is not a route to qualifying’

While many incumbents have been trying to stop Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) happening, new entrants and innovators across the legal market have been thinking about how to educate, attract and develop talent in a changing world, writes Crispin Passmore ahead of his appearance at LegalEdCon North later this month

Those that link all elements of the evolving legal market will be the winners in the next decade. Those that see SQE simply as a change to the way that solicitors qualify are missing the bigger picture.

Even before the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) started to liberalise its approach to regulation in 2014 the legal market was already undergoing fundamental change. Axiom, Elevate, LOD, United Lex — these types of business have been offering an alternative to legal advice from traditional law firms for over 20 years. The Big Four were offering alternatives to legal services — tax accountants, legal process engineering, outsourcing — before the SRA was even created. And the rise of technology to support legal delivery is slower than the prophets predict but still fundamentally reshaping delivery.

These enterprise legal service providers think differently to law firms. They see their workforce differently — without the bizarre categorisation of lawyer/non-lawyer. Instead of lawyers being the front line of delivery backed by other disciplines as necessary, they create teams that are multi-disciplinary, valued for their contribution rather than their title.

Add to this that the labour market has also changed. Firms like Keystone Law have rethought what a workforce looks like for a law firm just as much as Axiom has. And now firms like Aria-Grace are offering the same for unregulated corporate legal services.

All of these models appear to rely upon traditional law firms training lawyers who move to these alternative or enterprise models once their practice is established. SQE changes this.

Final release tickets are now on sale for LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January

Whether it is Deloitte and its three year training programme, United Lex and its modular training, or Rocket Lawyer training its own lawyers in an unregulated business, we are witnessing a breaking down of labour market rigidities. F-LEX style flexible paralegal resourcing will combine the ‘gig economy’ with portfolio management and development at the start of a legal career. That will shift control of qualifying work experience away from law firms and on to the individual. No longer can a law firm dangle a training contract in front of paralegals or insist that getting a job in a firm’s onshore centre is not a route to qualifying. These individuals can earn while they build their portfolio, learn online and sit SQE at their own pace. They will qualify as solicitors if they are good enough rather than if they can secure a training contract.

Some educators are responding. I am as excited to see traditional law schools choose to ignore SQE as they develop more inspiring law and business, law and technology or law and legal design courses, as I am to see modern universities incorporate SQE preparation, and perhaps even SQE1, into their undergraduate degree. Plurality and diversity of approach are the key to meeting the diverse labour market needs of the legal market.

It may be the case many of the current smaller suppliers of education may not be able to compete against big incumbents or exciting new entrants like the College of Legal Practice. Online delivery of skills and knowledge training is coming to law and that should be welcomed if it reduces cost and increases access. But there is also the opportunity for smaller suppliers (or indeed larger ones) to offer differentiated undergraduate, postgraduate, or continuing professional development courses to specific market segments.

All of these changes take us back to the difference between seeing SQE as part of a wider set of changes or a narrow change to how solicitors qualify. The former leads to the development of a genuine workforce strategy. That is one that follows the business strategy — what sort of skills, knowledge and experience does the firm need across multiple disciplines to deliver the services that its strategy is based upon? A workforce strategy should encompass all the workforce without a hint of ‘lawyer exceptionalism’. It should not start and stop with qualifying as a solicitor. Those law firms and legal businesses that grasp this are already making changes. It is not too late for any firm to catch up.

Crispin Passmore, founder of Passmore Consulting and former executive director for policy at the SRA, will be speaking at LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January 2020. Final release tickets for the conference can be purchased here.

15 Comments

Rosalind

Good. This training contract nonsense should have been abolished decades ago.

(4)(19)

Anon

Didn’t get a tc, I take it?

(14)(1)

AW1983

I don’t necessarily think the training contract should have been abolished, but I cautiously welcome the changes brought about by the SQE that diversifies the way people can gain the necessary experience to become a solicitor. Increasingly, employees need to be multi-skilled and although I am not a solicitor myself I’m in a field (financial services compliance) that is increasingly favouring solicitors and barristers in recruitment. Career progression might suggest I become a solicitor myself to compete but I don’t particularly relish the idea of leaving my current employer to do a training contract.

The SQE will change that as I could work in the legal department of my firm to get the necessary credential to move on. However, I am mindful of the fact that I would remain utterly useless as a solicitor defending a case in the magistrate’s court or in helping someone do the paperwork to buy a house! With that in mind I think the one mistake with the new SQE is that it does not seem to come with a practice certificate.

I think the Law Society should copy what the accountancy bodies do. People can become qualified with work experience that can be gained with multiple employers. However, to work as an accountant directly taking business from the public, they must have a practicing certificate with additional work experience criteria. I think practicing certificates restricted to one area of law each (e.g. conveyancing, criminal, family etc) should be a requirement for anyone setting up their own firm or becoming a partner.

(0)(0)

Yawn

Can we stop this unthinking fetishising of the ‘Big Four’ and ‘NewLaw’?

(18)(0)

Anon

Passmore should be praised for bringing in a system that seeks to correct the power imbalance between law firms and law students.

But his notion that these new law firm models are superior to the established law firm partnership model is not grounded in reality. Look at the financials. Many law firms are extremely successful, profitable businesses. Why seek to change that?

Also, ‘lawyer exceptionalism’ is not a bad thing. It’s what allows law firms to charge a premium for their services. Law is a high status job, that attracts clever people, because interpreting and applying the law is challenging. That won’t change.

(23)(1)

Disgruntled

The system is not going to change, at least at the pedigree firms.

Law firms are still going to recruit on the basis of training contracts, whether they are called something else does not matter, on the basis of 2 years spending time in their preferred practice areas.

I think its probably quite easy for the top firms to ask whether the applicant applying at NQ whether they have done a “training contract” with a similar firm, and otherwise reject them if they have obtained the qualifying period of training by other means that does not fit in with the dynamic.

Power is never going to be with the students; market forces dictate that firms do what.

(32)(0)

Showround @ Bakers

All these “legal service providers” are trashy outfits I’ve never heard of. Wtf is an Axiom or United Lex?! Can only imagine it’s some new challenger to Eversheds that will die out/go bankrupt in two weeks. Rinse and repeat.

(18)(0)

Anonymous

Eversheds has been doing really well lately. I have no connections with the firm but it’s an objective statement to say that it’s now a well renowned international player which often acts on prestigious mandates!

(2)(6)

Showround @ Bakers

Perhaps it might one day replace NRF as the black sheep of the BPP consortium firms

(10)(0)

Mi5

Would love to read a piece regarding the fall of NRF. Why do none of their associates stick around much longer than NQ? Somethings up

(8)(0)

Anonymous

Still, despite all this crap, you either have a good enough degree before you get to this stage or you don’t. One thing is clear, no-one, absolutely no-one, cares about what you do at the vocational stage.

(13)(0)

John Smith

Just because you qualify as a solicitor doesn’t mean you are entitled to work in the role of a solicitor. What utter nonsense this article is.

(8)(0)

AW1983

True, although I would just like to say there are professional among us who will benefit from this change. I work in Compliance for a wholesale bank, I have no desire to change employer but increasingly solicitors are being preferred in senior roles. The SQE will allow me to qualify and get the work experience I need through secondment rather than having to leave the firm to get a training contract.

However, I appreciate I would not be fit to act as a solicitor dealing with things like conveyancing, criminal cases etc! My view is that the Law Society really needs to get its act together and have a series of practicing certificates so that only experienced solicitors can sell services to the public in areas of expertise. This applies as much to a financial services regulatory professional such as myself, who should not be able to offer legal services to criminal defendants, as it applies to a 30 year experienced criminal solicitor should not be advising my firm on how to apply MiFIR!

(0)(0)

Legal Cheek’s First CyberNat #IndyRef2020 #VoteYes 2020 #SNP #IndependenceForScotland

Nonsense. The Firms can adopt the routes to entry they wish to adopt. I suspect little will change.

(0)(0)

Anon

Change is neither good nor bad, it simply is. Whether we or our employing law firms like it or not, change to the qualifying process (and inevitably recruitment process) is coming. Embrace it and try to implement it to the maximum benefit.

(0)(0)

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