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City law firms give insights into SQE plans

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Legal Cheek-BARBRI super-exam survey results revealed

The UK’s biggest law firms are preparing to overhaul their training structures as the new route to solicitor qualification nears, and have now shared insights into their plans.

The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), one of the biggest shake-ups to legal education, is set to replace both the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) when it comes into force from autumn next year.

Fifty-three graduate recruitment and learning and development professionals at City of London-based global law firms took part in this year’s Legal Cheek SQE survey, conducted in partnership with BARBRI. The results were announced at last month’s Virtual Legal Cheek Awards.

One concern among law firms appears to be the degree of difficulty anticipated in the SQE. Almost half of respondents (49%) expect the SQE to be as difficult as the LPC.

Interestingly, 19% said that the SQE will be more difficult to pass than the LPC, while the lowest proportion, 8%, thought the SQE will be easier to pass than the LPC. Could this mean academic critique and concerns over the standardised assessment’s multiple-choice format, and that it may lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the profession, is unfounded? A quarter (25%) of participants were undecided.

Forty percent said that they would allow future trainees to join them after completing just the first part of the SQE. The second part of the SQE would then be conducted on the job, allowing trainees to earn while they learn. Four percent went even further, stating that trainees could join them before they had even started the first part of the SQE. Such an approach would see the vocational training stage merge with the training contract.

However, 28% of firms said that they would require students to complete both parts of the SQE before joining them as trainees, an arrangement similar to the current system under the LPC, while another 28% were unsure about the approach they’d take.

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If SQE2 is integrated into the workplace, 40% of firms expect their trainees to prepare for the second part with some day release and some evening and weekend study time. Thirteen percent expect prep to be done only during the working week. None of the firms surveyed said they’d require trainees to prepare for the assessment in their own time. Forty-six percent were unsure.

In terms of content, it is expected that most law firms will offer bespoke courses that go beyond the SQE. The overwhelming majority of firms surveyed considered transactional training in their main practice areas (equivalent to LPC electives) and people and legal skills training: negotiation, drafting and people management, for example, to be the most essential training for their junior cohorts in addition to the SQE. This was followed by business and finance skills training, and lastly, tech, AI and innovation training.

Expectations of future trainee numbers under the SQE system were unchanged, with two thirds (66%) planning to take on the same number of new recruits, 11% expecting to hire more, 8% expecting to hire fewer, and 15% not knowing.

Commenting on the findings, BARBRI International managing director Sarah Hutchinson said:

“There is continuing good news for students because, for the second year running, most law firms are expecting graduate recruitment to remain steady or even increase. Many law firms are also considering generous study leave to enable students to prepare for the SQE. The major source of concern with employers appears to be with the degree of difficulty anticipated in the exams. Most respondents expect the SQE to be just as difficult, if not more difficult to pass than the LPC.”

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7 Comments

Kirkland NQ

“Four percent went even further, stating that trainees could join them before they had even started the first part of the SQE. Such an approach would see the vocational training stage merge with the training contract.”

Finally, my views are becoming mainstream in the legal profession! This is so obvious. If I managed to smash those big PE deals in the pre-school, anyone can work as a trainee without any legal training or studies.

(9)(1)

Realist

SQE is a pitiful abortion of a social engineering project which has at its heart the unevidenced assumption that if you create new, inferior, routes to qualification then (a) more solicitor jobs will be created (they won’t: market demand won’t change, if anything it will worsen as the qualification degrades); and (b) more diverse candidates will get through (they won’t: firms will rightly become more risk adverse, and prefer Oxbridge candidates or rich Singaporeans, etc. for ‘diversity’, to the even greater exclusion of candidates who previous could have demonstrated their ability in clear competition on a simple playing field).

Employers will become exponentially more powerful, because the SRA have eliminated the ‘safe assumptions’ about candidates which could previously have be inferred from the qualifying law degree (“QLD”)/graduate diploma of law (“GDL”), and legal practice course (“LPC”). Any muppet can now purport to jump through SQE1 hoops, then play at doing trivial, notionally legally-related work, and then tick boxes in SQE2. The solicitor qualification, per se, will be worthless. What will matter – and the *only* thing that will matter – will be the name of the law firm in which people started their careers, both (1) because it will be assumed that experience in Linklaters, A&O, Kirkland & Ellis etc. is *exponentially* more valuable than in ‘Ditcher, Quick & Hyde’ divorce lawyers; and (2) credentialism – the concept that people are judged by certain achievements as an ‘filter’ rather than for their actual value per se – will be even greater (i.e. at the moment, if you have a BCL you stand out, not because you need a BCL to practice, but it’s a useful filter for law fim HR. By eliminating the QLD, GDL and LPC, you will force employers to find substitutes. Oxbridge and US/Magic Circle law firm names on your CV will be ever more important).

Many firms will simply ignore the SQE, and replicate the existing GDL/LPC. For example, Linklaters, Freshfields, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Norton Rose Fulbright and Slaughter and May are working together to do just that: see https://www.legalcheek.com/2019/09/exclusive-city-law-firm-consortium-prepares-to-appoint-super-exam-prep-course-provider. Henceforth, ‘proper’ solicitors in decent City jobs will be those who go down that, or similar, routes. The ‘second-class solicitor’ route will be exclusively for those who bought the SRA’s SQE snake oil.

What is so perversely tragic about this is that working class and BAME candidates who are less likely to have access to decent careers advice will be more likely to cluelessly believe the hype that ‘all solicitors are equal’, and that SQE1/2 will put them on the same playing field as US NQs earning £150k (the lack of realistic careers advice is one of main reasons for different levels of achievement now: less academic middle class children are sensibly deterred from going into law). Sorry kids, the SRA has lied to you, because (a) it was fooled itself by a charlatan who is now seeking to exploit the disaster he’s created himself by becoming a ‘consultant’; and (b) it lacks the courage to admit that it made a mistake. What a mess.

The SRA’s lobotomised pursuit of the SQE is an immense discredit to it, and it suggests a regulator which is either too incomptent to realise its failure or too arrogant to admit it. Can we now – please – put a stake in the SQE?

In an attempt to conclude on a positive note: the SRA has rightly recognised that law school quality is highly variable, and that this should be addressed. There is a very simple alternative to the SQE, though: centrally-set and assessed LPC exams. This would preserve the best parts of the current system, while providing quality assurance. How about it, SRA?

(23)(1)

Jane

I agree. I am very glad my son will be almost the last under the GDL and avoid all this. It is going to be a worse, not a better system.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

100% pure Karen.

(4)(0)

Aghast

A curious attempt at PR from Realist above, who, were it not for the undercurrent of cognitive dissonance belying self disgust, could have actually passed as a passionate true – believing spokesman for the much-vaunted premier league breakaway group of ‘proper’ magic circle solicitors. It really was a well constructed diatribe. Soon (with the introduction of cameras in court) we could watch on telly our valiant ‘proper’ solicitors as they adroitly hold their barristers papers in court LIVE and if we are REALLY lucky, maybe will even get to see a redemption character arc come full circle, complete with psychotic break recovery, seeing as we were robbed of that of Jaime Lannister’s in game of thrones…Our budding trainees could yet sit the Bar Transfer Test, OR, god forbid, those who have addressed their ego and self esteem issues might yet open their own high-street practice and earn double or even treble what our intrepid ‘proper’ solicitors earn. Thereby over time solving the problem of London hoovering up all the properly qualified young solicitors cohort who really ought to be doing work that is nowadays dumped on paralegals to the detriment of both elements of the legal profession.

(0)(3)

Anonymous

Is there a colouring in section now to appease the social justice warriors that moaned that asking questions to find out how much someone knew about law that required advanced understanding of the workings of English language was producing outcomes that did not suit them? Wake up and smell the home brewed coffee moaners, there is a recession and when that happens recruiters flock to security so your targets can be put away for the next 5 or 10 years.

(7)(0)

Anon

“8%, thought the SQE will be easier to pass than the LPC. Could this mean academic critique and concerns over the standardised assessment’s multiple-choice format, and that it may lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the profession, is unfounded?”

Most of the academic critique has been directed at using multiple-choice questions in the Foundations of Legal Knowledge subjects covered in the QLD, not the LPC. The concern about dumbing-down remains.

(0)(0)

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