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Exclusive research: Law firms say the SQE alone will not be enough

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Results of a survey undertaken by nearly 50 leading law firms reveal the new centralised route to qualification won’t cover enough ground and a more thorough course is needed

The majority of law firms think the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) will not be enough to prepare students for legal practice.

Forty-three graduate recruitment and learning and development (L&D) professionals at City law firms took part in Legal Cheek‘s exclusive SQE survey in association with The University of Law.

The main concern among law firms appears to be that the new centralised route to qualification won’t cover enough ground and students will require a more thorough course in order to fully prepare them for their training contracts or qualifying work experience (QWE). Almost three-quarters surveyed (70%) responded this way.

Some 19% of respondents said they think passing SQE1 and SQE2 will be sufficient as long as students do so before they start their training, while 12% thought passing SQE1 will be sufficient for students to start their training and SQE2 can then prepare them for on-the-job learning during this period.

So, if, as the majority say, the SQE won’t be enough, what will be?

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The SQE is a two-part national assessment to be set and examined centrally. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been open about the fact that the so-called ‘super-exam’ is a foundation to build on, an L&D manager at a leading City law firm told Legal Cheek. As such, the SRA’s role is to determine the minimum for someone to be suitable for qualification as a solicitor — whatever their ultimate job may be. This means that there will have to be tailoring for the specifics of the role they are taking on, and for City practices that means putting in additional content to prepare trainees for work in a City law firm.

This gives firms greater flexibility. “Rather than dealing with lots of prescriptive requirements from the regulator, firms will now have more freedom to provide bespoke training that meets the needs of their business,” Julie Brannan, director of legal education and training at the SRA, told us.

Lloyd Stephenson, head of resourcing at City outfit Ashurst, agreed. He noted that although the SQE “does require less corporate and commercial law to be studied”, it allows “more flexibility to shape and adapt the training for our emerging talent”.

It seems that elite City law firms will provide SQE ‘top-up courses’ for trainees to supplement the knowledge and skills examined under the new regime. These are likely to be in addition to those taken by trainees to prepare for the SRA’s centralised assessments. Exactly what they’ll cover depends on the type of firm a trainee joins, as Brannan said, but “some might want to focus more on a particular area of practice, tech or broader business skills”, she added.

Robert Halton, chief people officer at Burges Salmon, shared with us some of the areas he thinks commercial law firms should aim to include on their bespoke courses. “Understanding the business needs of clients, managing legal projects and the role and application of technology are critical skills for the professional careers of our lawyers which go beyond the core areas that the SRA identified,” he said.

Such an approach would not be too dissimilar from the Legal Practice Course (LPC) electives which the SQE phases out. Under the current regime, LPC electives, or modules, are usually prescribed by a law firm and tend to align with their core practice areas. City law firms, for instance, tend to opt for corporate and commercial electives with a transactional focus.

Exactly where these top-up courses will sit in the SQE timeline is unclear. Yet, we now know the dates of the first SQE exams and given that a student must pass SQE1 before they proceed to SQE2, and that there’s going to be a six to ten week wait for SQE1 results to be released, this could be prime time for firms to deliver extra courses and get rookies up to speed.

They’re likely to partner with and commission legal education providers to deliver these courses. Some of the individuals we spoke to encouraged students and prospective trainees to research any future employer’s plans in this regard.

But what about those students that don’t secure an elite City TC? How will they go about getting similar levels of exposure? It’s likely we’ll see a new market emerge where the leading law schools offer top-up courses, in addition to preparatory courses to pass the two exams, and at an additional cost. What this means for access to the profession remains to be seen.

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21 Comments

K&E PARALEGAL

So being a paralegal for 2+ years and doing both parts of the SQE exam is not enough to become a solicitor, but being a trainee at Freshfields being an errand boy is fine? Ok.

(62)(15)

Anon

Trainees at MC firms do more work than paralegals – what are you on? Do you think they work until 3am some nights just running errands?

(23)(23)

6 year PQE

While I’m fully aware of the sh*t talking this will cause, it truly amazes me how little actual legal work some trainees do at these huge firms. I have a friend who did his TC at Slaughters and he legitimately did less legal work than my secretary most days.

(51)(1)

Izzitme

But it’s only working as a solicitor. Most of it early on is wading through documents, ticking boxes and filling in the blanks on a word template.

(18)(0)

Anonymous

Sounds right. It really is an awful rabbit hole they have gone down with this exam, especially with the diversity warriors trying to make it easier and easier.

(20)(20)

SC

The SQE won’t be a disaster for the profession, and firms will make it work for them. What it will be problematic for is the people taking it unsponsored; it’s going to creating a huge surplus of qualified solicitors who will not be able to find jobs as their QWE is not an adequate replacement for a training contract. The SQE is being sold as somewhat of an equaliser but the fact remains that there are too many applicants for too few jobs to please everyone, so the competitive element of obtaining a job as a solicitor is going to remain.

(48)(0)

Old Guy

Excellent point. All that is going to happen is City firms will come together with University of Law or BPP to create exceptional bespoke courses for their future trainees. If you don’t get trained in this way you may well be hampered long term in a way that doesn’t happen today via the LPC/TC route.

(32)(1)

Anonymous

A completely unrelated question-

I am a law student from India and had bagged an admit offer from Oxford BCL last year which I deferred for a term. I always wanted to be a barrister in London but now realizing that becoming a barrister in UK is a very difficult job, I am okay being a solicitor as well. I just wanted to know how difficult is for an average International student reading BCL at Oxford to grab a TC offer at MC/US firms or a pupilage at a top chamber

Thanks!

(1)(17)

Advice

You can assess your chances yourself by using chambers websites and LinkedIn to compare yourself to the achievements of junior tenants and junior associates in your target set and firms, respectively. I suggest that what you will find is that:

1. High end commercial and chancery sets (the only only worth the gamble, arguably) recruit almost exclusively from candidates with both an Oxbridge first degree, and often also the BCL. They have the luxury of selecting on merit, and are largely impervious to PR pressure. You will also likely notice that many junior barristers have a wealth of experience pre-pupilage. The bar is therefore extraordinarily difficult to get in to.

2. High end law firms are easier. There is considerable left wing political pressure for more women and ethnic minorities, and that means that you have an advantage. If you perform well on the BCL you should have a strong chance of getting a training contract. Your main risk is perhaps the fact that many firms recruit several years in advance, and previously expected you to follow the LPC pipeline, and you will not fit into that template. It’s also unclear what they will do now the SQE disaster is in motion. Nonetheless, this probably is the most sensible route – you will also find other Indian lawyers who have taken a similar route. Should you still want to be a barrister in the future, as long as you have qualified into a litigation team then it will help you to have a couple of years experience under your belt when you apply to pupillage interviews.

(7)(7)

Advice?

Grrrrrr… pesky left wing political pressure for more women and ethnic minorities. Let’s go back to the nice wholesome right wing political pressure from the rest of history for only rich white men to get on. * shakes fist at the universe *.

(11)(4)

Client

I want my lawyer to be clever enough and educated enough. Their sex, gender and ethnicity and the general sex, gender and ethnicity mix of the profession mean nothing to me. The more I see diversity agendas on a firm website, the more I would worry about using that firm.

(7)(9)

Advice?

The status quo is not accidental or natural. It is the result of systematic privilege and bias. The issue is that the pressure to maintain that situation is hidden and disguised as simply the norm. Calling to counter-balance that is defined as pressure/political/woke/dumbing down. You want your lawyer to be clever and educated. Doing nothing about diversity means that the clever people who could have helped you are not those who get educated or given the opportunity to be put in front of you.

Anonymous

1138. You keeping sipping that leftist look-aid. You just sound like the flip side of Q Anon believers with your “it’s all hidden” theories. Clever people can make it wherever they come from.

Anonymous

Thank you!

I graduated top of my class at one of Indian National law universities. Hopefully, we will work hard even in BCL. I was just worried if some job prospects exist in UK or not.

I think pupilage is still hard but a TC at a MC/ US firm is doable, right?

I heard people say that Oxford BCL is the most prestigious course in th UK and BCL students grab TCs easily. I was just wondering if that is true

Thanks!

(1)(4)

Me

good troll always being a good troll

(2)(0)

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 a ‘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: non-academic middle class children are sensibly deterred from going into law, whereas similarly [un]qualified minority candidates are misled. 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.

It was true that law school quality was variable with the LPC, and that this should have been addressed, but there was a very simple alternative to the SQE, though: centrally-set and assessed LPC exams. That would have preserved the best parts of the current system, while providing quality assurance.

The SRA’s lobotomised pursuit of the SQE is an immense discredit to it, and it suggests a regulator both too incompetent to realise its failure and too arrogant to admit it. We should put a stake in both the SQE and, ideally, the SRA itself.

(56)(7)

M

Not all solicitors want to work for US law firms and many can work inhouse, for the government, abroad, or even create their own firm … The SQE was created because many students successfully passed the LPC but still couldn’t find a TC which is just a shame when you know the number of TC offered by law firms each year. This TC is just a labor market distorsion. To become a solicitor, no need for a TC in a magic circle firm where most trainees only do “admin job”, the most important skills are assessed by SQE.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Agree completely. The SRA have said time and again that there is currently a training contract bottleneck. The new system will not remove that bottleneck, but just push it upwards to qualification. There will be a great number of qualified solicitors who passed SQE 1 and 2 and obtained their QWE in a variety of (perhaps poorly paid or unpaid) posts who will find themselves unable to obtain a job on qualification. As this indicates, the big firms will by and large want more than just SQE 1 and 2 and those whose training does not reach that level will find it hard to “shape their career”.

(8)(0)

Anonymous

I dont know how there will be surplous of solicitors. I know a guy who spent 10 years just to finally pass the QLTS (qlts similar to sqe) and many others who couldn’t pass the exam at all even till now.. an Italian shipping lawyer got so mad he started yelling at qlts examiners . He was shouting in the briefing room ” is this exam even passable at all ? ” after having failed almost 3 times..said he will return to Italy if didnt make it this time…..pass rate was really low only 40% in the first part, 60% would fail…and pass mark unbelievably high around 60% .. whereas LPC and bachelors were far easier..only bottleneck was TC…

(5)(3)

Anonymous

It was always looking like a comedy qualification driven by the woke crowd wanting to hand out prizes for everyone. The requests to dumb down part 1 after it was suggested that questions with long sentences raised diversity issues settled it. No-one, absolutely no-one, will take this seriously as a qualification and the end result will be the absolute opposite as firms retreat to more conservative recruitment approaches.

(11)(2)

Different View

Everyone here seems focussed at young people who still have the opportunity to go to a good University and obtain the so called bespoke + SQE training at City firms.

I look more at mature candidates in previous non-legal city careers such as Bankers, Accountants, Regulators, Financial Advisers etc. who may wish to expand their remit by qualifying as a UK Solicitor.

My prediction is that we will see more of these people as they already have the corporate business + legal application knowledge and skills, including clients contacts and just looking for way to set up their own business/firm.

SQE is a blessing in disguise for these cohort of people and overall with tendency for more legal jobs to be created if they succeed (hope they do). Most clients cannot afford the city law firms anyway and 90% of their revenue come from FTSE firms & Banks.

We should stop criticising the SRA even if this won’t work. It is a bold attempt on its part to try and confront an obvious problem. I won’t also expect city law firms who created the problems in the first place to publicly endorse or agree. The ball is in their court to preserve the prestige standing of their law firms but very soon, who knows, they may be faced with new set of competitions that also have access to their clients and have built reputation in their previous careers.

(1)(0)

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