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Elite firms could ignore solicitor super-exam results and stick with old boys’ networks, diversity experts warn

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SQE ‘could help’ with diversity but not if firms keep recruiting directly from top unis

Top law firms could undermine the diversity potential of the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) by continuing to recruit straight from traditional unis, a new report has warned.

Consultants brought in by the solicitors’ regulator say that the SQE has serious potential to improve diversity in the profession — but not if elite firms basically ignore it in favour of the old school tie.

The report says that a failure of firms to change their ways would be “likely to dilute the positive impact on diversity” that the SQE could otherwise bring about.

The warning comes from Bridge Group, a social equality consultancy — which yesterday put out another hard-hitting report finding that poor students need better A-Levels to get to study law at uni in the first place.

The boffins’ new effort looks at the potential of the SQE to improve the “lack of diversity amongst solicitors”. It builds on a previous report from 2017.

The report urges the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to collect as much data as possible on how different groups — such as women, ethnic minorities and disabled people — do on the SQE. It wants analysis of the results to distinguish between black, asian and mixed ethnicity candidates, rather than lumping them all together as “BAME”.

The Bridge Group still reckons that the format of the exam is “as objective an evaluation methodology as possible” — so long as questions are checked for cultural bias, as the SRA has promised.

And it thinks that the super-exam “has the powerful potential to level the playing field for candidates”. Nicholas Miller, chief executive of the Bridge Group, said: “There is no silver bullet to address diversity in the legal profession, but the SQE could help.”

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But there are still concerns that:

“[S]ome legal employers may continue to use the conventional pathways through which they have recruited high performing candidates for many years. If leading law firms continue to recruit directly from a limited pool of highly selective universities, with little focus on relative SQE performance, this is likely to dilute the positive impact on diversity that could be realised by these reforms.”

Bridge also say that it’s important to address the possible “prejudice” against solicitors who qualify via work experience as a paralegal or a law centre rather than those who’ve “followed a more traditional training contract route”.

The good news is that at least 34 providers have signed up to offer the SQE. The regulator wants there to be competition for SQE training courses, driving down costs for students.

But that partly depends on unis stepped up to the plate. The report notes that “in the context of COVID-19, the university sector is likely to respond cautiously to pressure to reform legal programmes significantly”.

So if you end up paying through the nose for an SQE course in the coming years, blame the virus.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: “We are pleased this report recognises the progress we have made, and we welcome both the robust review and the recommendations, which will help us to realise the benefits for everyone.”

“We know we don’t have all the answers and that the SQE cannot on its own resolve all the diversity issues that the sector faces,” he continued. “This is a shared challenge for all the sector, but the insights we gain through the SQE should mean we are better placed to work together to tackle this problem.”

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33 Comments

Anon

Is it now a strange opinion to think that law firms, who have a financial incentive to recruit the best candidates, are better placed to determine which qualifications it thinks indicate that ability than the SRA?

The SQE is becoming a joke, with lay people obtaining passing marks with no studying and further calls from the soft bigots to water it down to obtain equality of outcome. I would be very surprised if law firms put any stock in it.

(92)(1)

Realist

Correct. SQE is worthless. In February 2020, a 15-year-old scored almost 50% in the initial section of the SQE, despite doing no preparation and having no knowledge of the law (www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/childs-play-unprepared-15-year-old-scores-half-marks-in-super-exam/5103230.article).

The best law firms are ignoring the SQE, and replicating 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 and https://www.legalcheek.com/2020/05/city-consortiums-non-law-trainees-will-need-to-complete-pre-super-exam-conversation-course.

The SRA is run by left-wingers with no knowledge of how to run a law firm, but who seek to impose their political visions of society on the rest of the population. They have paid a bunch of left-wing consultants, the Bridge Group*, who can be relied upon to parrot the SRA’s own view, because they share the same ideological echo chamber. This is the inevitable consequence of ‘diversity top trumps’, the ‘politics of victimhood’, the ‘grievance olympics’, etc. People should compete on their objective merits, or not at all.

* Hilariously, if utterly predictably, the Bridge Group – while seeking to impose on law firms the Politburo/Guardian-mandated quota of black, female, lesbian, disabled Eskimos, with at least two self-diagnosed mental illnesses – comprises exclusively middle-class white people: https://www.thebridgegroup.org.uk/ourstaff. Do as we say, not as we do! Hypocrites and charlatans, the lot of them.

(79)(14)

Realist

SQE is a worthless 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 through clear competition on a simple playing field). It is the new CILEx: created with the intention of widening diversity and qualification into the profession, but ultimately producing a qualification that is less credible than the ‘proper’ qualification route.

Law firms will become 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. In February 2020, a 15-year-old scored almost 50% in the initial section of the SQE, despite doing no preparation and having no knowledge of the law (www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/childs-play-unprepared-15-year-old-scores-half-marks-in-super-exam/5103230.article). Both the SQE and SRA are a joke.

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 firm HR. By eliminating the QLD, GDL and LPC, you will force employers to find substitutes. Oxbridge and US/Magic Circle law firm names on one’s CV will be ever more important).

It has long-since been inevitable that the best law 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 and https://www.legalcheek.com/2020/05/city-consortiums-non-law-trainees-will-need-to-complete-pre-super-exam-conversation-course. 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. The latter risk being stuck in a second-class ‘jobs ghetto’.

Junior lawyers’ future will now be determined by where they train, because the SQE is not up to scratch and the only value will come from the training and credibility offered by the firms. Those who train at sub-par firms will be permanently blocked out from high-end City and commercial law.

What is so perversely tragic 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. Well done entrenching privilege, and damaging social mobility further, SRA. 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 incompetent to realise its failure or too arrogant to admit it. Can we now – please – put a stake in the SQE? (And, ideally, the SRA itself.)

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?

(106)(3)

Anon

Comment so powerful it could puncture my kidneys. Bravo sir.

(26)(2)

Spotted: in every LC comments section

The reason that comment is so powerful is because it’s a summary/copy-paste of LC comments made on other articles on the SQE.

I know this because my own comment has been stripped and included.

No doubt all the salient arguments have been included and it is a decent summary of how ridiculous the SQE is.

However, I imagine similar kinds of corner-cutting imposters being funnelled through the SQE.

(11)(2)

Anon

Nothing wrong with trying to provide a balanced view, benefitting from the wisdom of many. What do you think does the life of a good lawyer entail? It’s essentially a skilled copy-paste gig.

(12)(0)

Realist

Yes, I stole your CILEX point, I hope you don’t mind. It was something I’d missed in my first draft. You made a valid point, and I’m grateful that you did.

You are also correct that I have posted the overall comment itself on several articles related to the SQE. If we are all correct, that the SQE will be a disaster, then we should do what we can to warn of that. Who knows, someone important might read it, or someone competent might take over at the SRA.

(Ok, only joking on the latter; the SRA seems doomed.)

(14)(0)

Law Less

the SRA has rightly recognised that law school quality is highly variable, and that this should be addressed

Yet they absolutely refuse to publish the pass rates by institution.

(2)(0)

Realist

I agree with you, but releasing pass rates for the LPC in its current form would be a double-edged sword: while it would increase transparency, it would also increase the temptation for institutions to dumb down their courses and exams. We already see this with university degrees.

The only credible solution, I suggest, would be centrally-set LPC exams, *and then* also publishing pass rates by institution.

A third element, to reduce the human misery created every year by hopeless students being sold snake oil by UoL or BPP would be for there to be a ‘service level agreement’ of some sort between the law schools and the SRA whereby institutions with low pass rates were penalised financially, thus disincentivising them from tricking low calibre students to waste their money. To remove the temptation for such a scheme to evolve into a form of taxation, it could be revenue-neutral and re-distributed back to the law schools, i.e. after administration costs for the centrally-set LPC exam were deducted, the surplus could be distributed proportionately to those law schools with, say, a >80% pass rate (at the expense of the low quality sausage factories). Tweak the algorithm properly, and you could both make the centrally-set LPC exam pay for itself, and also penalise snake oil salesmen law schools.

(8)(0)

Cambridge Grad

Some years ago I did the GDL at Birmingham Uni of Law.

On the commute I got to know a lad doing the LLB. I asked him why he’d chosen to study there and he said it was because he got CCD at A Level. He was a nice lad but he didn’t give the impression of being that bright or enthusiastic.

Imagine my surprise at the end of term when he told me he had scored a first in every exam with an average score of 85%!!! Unless there was some genius underneath the facade who had only started to make an effort I understood there and then how incomparable a 1sr from Oxbridge is to one from these new institutions.

(42)(10)

Anon

Seems like you actually missed the key life lesson which had been sent your way from above: loosen up, quieten down, and respect people with dfferent educational backgrounds to you, and yes *even* working class people.

(19)(32)

The original ‘Anon’ in this thread

Unless there is sarcasm I’m missing here, what on earth do you mean?

How do you know the poster’s background? How do you know the guy with CCD wasn’t very middle class? I knew a large number of people at BPP who had rich parents and private school educations but underperformed academically and went to poor quality institutions.

The reality is is that not every “educational background” is equal and you do a great disservice to poor and minority ethnicity candidates who have succeeded academically to say that “your achievements are equal to those who didn’t work hard and succeed”

(16)(4)

Anon

Bore off

(1)(3)

Fairly gruntled

Your conclusion from observing someones interest in speaking to you versus their academic ability is that the course itself it sub-par? I’m not going to argue the idea that (of course) Oxford is a better degree, but the way you’ve arrived at that conclusion is ludicrous. Perhaps the guy was an introvert and wasn’t very sociable? I knew some seriously dim witted and boring sounding people who graduated from Oxford with PPE degrees etc. so I cant see how ones personality lends itself to academic merit?

Furthermore, maybe he had issues growing up that prevented him doing well in A Levels? I don’t know, but I’m struggling to understand your thought process here, given that you were at the same university yourself, so perhaps this is more due to the fact that he out performed you?

(16)(4)

Anon

Of course, your one-minute examination of his comment online is far superior to his assessment based on knowing this person over a long period of time…

You seem to have missed that the poster was studying for the GDL (a qualification only available from these sub-par cash cow institutions like BPP, ULaw etc no matter how well a person has done at A-Level, degree etc.), while the person he was commenting on was doing the LLB, a qualification which is much better taught elsewhere. This is nothing to do with jealousy.

Having known people who undertook and taught such qualifications, 85% from ULaw Birmingham is simply not very impressive *in itself*. You might be really smart and be forced by circumstances to do such a qualification but it simply doesn’t demonstrate your ability or show you have learned anything. Not a single clever lawyer I know regards their BPTC or LPC qualifications as showing anything about them other than they turned up for six months.

(5)(4)

Cambridge Grad

Ok Mr Sanctimonious, I do know some intelligent people don’t give an impression of being bright, but if someone has bad grades and doesn’t appear intelligent in conversation, the reasonable conclusion is that they are in fact not very bright (which is fine, I don’t look down on people who aren’t bright).

The possible conclusions are:

1. The threshold for a First at ULaw LLB is massively lower than the equivalent for Oxbridge, or

2. This lad was actually extremely intelligent, but had never previously manifested it.

I would genuinely like 2 to be the reason, but given what we know about grade inflation it is almost certainly isn’t.

(14)(1)

Anon

Looking online, the number of firsts awarded to law students at Birmingham Uni was only 4%, the lowest of any Russell Group, so he would be the cream of the crop. This either says something about your judgement of his ability, or the quality of students there…

(6)(5)

Anon

Just for clarity, my understanding of the poster was that it was the Birmingham campus/offshoot of University of Law (one of the main providers of the postgraduate solicitor training stages), not the law school of the university of Birmingham, which would be part of the Russell group (as I believe previous posters eluded to)

Anon

OR, it says something about my reading comprehension as I thought you said University of Birmingham and not University of Law…pain.

Brum grad to City law

The OP may have been slightly unclear but you should have been able to work it out. He meant the University of Law in Birmingham not the University of Birmingham LLB program (which is called Birmingham Law School). Average grad from Birmingham Law School will have A*s/As at GCSE and probably AAA A-levels, so below Oxbridge/LSE/Durham/UCL but your standard redbrick Uni (Manchester/Leeds/Exeter/Bristol/Sheffield et al).

University of Law and BPP offer LLBs for either persistent underachievers or late converters to law.

Fairly gruntled

In response to Cambridge grad: Not intending to be sanctimonious at all, I just didn’t follow your logic and I actually owe you an apology now that I have had it pointed out. I did indeed read your post as attending Birmingham Law School and not the University of Law in Birmingham. I have no issue with Russell Group universities of course, not everyone is destined to attend Oxbridge (and nor should they be required to in order to have a rewarding career in law), but any time someone tells me they did a full LLB at Ulaw or BPP (or the OU) I instantly check out of the conversation. I’m aware of the hypocrisy of my statement given that I did my conversion at City Law School, however having seen the cohorts of people bleating about getting “unconditional offers” to study there (read: pay us and anyone is in), it kind of diminishes it for me.

(7)(0)

Pupillage sup

I wouldn’t include the OU, I generally see an OU LLB as evidence of grit given the time it takes. I rate an OU LLB higher than an LLB from any poly – then again, this may just be because I much prefer the older interesting applicants than yet another 21 year old bore with zero character.

Stranger

I would disagree with you, maybe the guy wasn’t passionate about the A levels. He did uni degree and subject that he was passionate about and did his best. I did A levels and it was BBB and at uni all subjects was 85%.

(0)(2)

Fanny Price

I assume you got worse marks than him then.

(0)(0)

Old Boi

Plus ça change.

(8)(0)

Law Less

SQE ‘could help’ with diversity but not if firms keep recruiting directly from top unis

How dare firms recruit from the best unis?

My mind is blown.

(16)(2)

O.O

SQE will definitely not help with diversity all the time trainees can now be unpaid and any previously qualified solicitor can sign off someone’s qualifying work experience. Any retired partner could be signing off their old colleagues’ kids’ work experience and they could not even be working, considering no one is actually verifying the work experience nor the quality of it.

(8)(0)

Not a Regular Poster

I think the poster was talking about the University of Law in Birmingham….NOT the University of Birmingham law degree. The two are separate institutions with differing candidate abilities…..

(9)(0)

Anonymous

“Diversity experts”. For goodness sake.

(4)(0)

Realist

Exactly. It’s a self-serving industry of left-wingers peddling divisive, political poison, and in so doing, enriching themselves,

(2)(0)

rfrf

The SQE is unserious, and attempts to criticise people who see it’s obvious flaws as engaging in “old boy’s club” behaviour expose just how out of touch with reality the “diversity experts” running these regulatory institutions are.

(1)(0)

but

Top firms recruit from top unis offering top dollar and top training. This is how the world is supposed to work for goodness sake.

(0)(0)

AMC

I’m about to start the final year of a Cambridge history degree and should get a strong 2:1 minimum.

I’d be interested in views as to whether I should:

a) do a part-time GDL with BPP starting in August 2021, thereby avoiding SQE, proceeding to LPC then a traditional training contract, or
b) do a GDL equivalent from Sept 2021, then SQE1, then 2yrs qualifying work experience including SQE2.

I will of course be competing against those who have done undergrad LLB, who can continue down the traditional route up to and including those graduating in 2023.

There seems to be little information on how firms with manage the transition and potentially handle two streams of people initially.

Thanks

(0)(0)

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