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How one law school is helping shape the next generation of lawyers

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By Emily Hinkley on

Ahead of her appearance at LegalEdCon next month, BARBRI’s head of new business and account management, Victoria Cromwell, explains how the legal education giant is leveraging its experience in US bar prep to bring success to aspiring solicitors in the UK

BARBRI’s head of new business and account management, Victoria Cromwell

The transition from the Legal Practice Course (LPC) to the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) has been a seismic change for most legal education providers. The new format has required many law schools to radically re-think their approach to teaching.

But this isn’t the case for BARBRI, explains Victoria Cromwell, head of new business and account management. “We’ve found the transition very easy compared to other law schools because we didn’t have the burden of legacy courses such as the LPC and GDL,” she explains. “We entered the UK legal education market with the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) which is almost identical to the SQE so had already built a course designed specifically for this kind of assessment and already had multiple data points to drive our SQE1 course design and delivery.”

And it wasn’t just the lack of LPC legacy that helped BARBRI master this new pathway to solicitor qualification; it also happens to be the largest US bar preparation provider in the world. “BARBRI has prepared US graduates to take the bar exams for over 50 years, and the Multi State Bar Exam element of this is the same as the multiple-choice structure of SQE1 and similarly represents 50% of the overall assessment,” Cromwell explains. “Even prior to the introduction of the SQE, we had a deep understanding of what the format would look like and the best way to help students prepare for and pass it.”

The SQE ensures aspiring solicitors meet a universal standard in terms of competency. “Under the old LPC model, law schools set and examined their own assessments,” says Cromwell. “It was clear from the SRA’s reporting that there was a discrepancy in standards, as pass rates ranged from 20% to 100% depending on the provider. A centralised assessment ensures that consumers can have confidence that the provision of legal services, wherever it is delivered, meets a benchmark standard.”

While the new regime is attempting to put an end to this variation, many looking at comparative pass rates perceive the SQE as more difficult. Cromwell takes a pragmatic view: “I think from a student’s perspective it is harder now, because open book is generally perceived to be easier, and previously students could tackle one subject at a time whereas SQE1 requires the bringing together of 16 subjects into one two-day exam at the same time.”

And it’s not just the closed book aspect that makes it more arduous, she says. “The SQE condenses the seven core subjects usually addressed by a degree or GDL, plus the procedural law covered by the LPC. It’s a lot of material to cover and master, and to be able to demonstrate the application of this knowledge to specific scenarios as required by the exam.”

While this may not fill aspiring lawyers with confidence, Cromwell stresses exam success is simply down to the right preparation. “At BARBRI students learn from a preparation course specifically designed to prepare students for the assessments for SQE1 and 2. For SQE1 this involves mastering the multiple-choice format to reflect what they’ll face in the exam, and the acquisition of the lawyering skills covered by SQE2. Students should trust the process — those of our students that complete at least 90% of their BARBRI SQE1 course, have a 77% chance of success which is significantly above the national average, and 100% of our alumni (those who sat SQE1 with us) passed the most recent SQE2 exam.

Find out more about SQE Prep with BARBRI

This exam-focused strategy has informed the way BARBRI teaches. “During the course everything is circled back to again and again to keep the knowledge fresh,” Cromwell explains. “We have extensive data points from both the US Bar and QLTS, and from the first iterations of SQE that inform our course design and delivery, and we use established learning science, for example around the forgetting curve, to pin-point when knowledge starts to dip and when we need to refresh it. Our innovative AI-powered platform also flexes around our student’s individual journey delivering a personalised learning experience that would not be possible in a traditional classroom environment, This, coupled with 1:1 learning coach support, should reassure students undertaking this new route to qualification.”

And it is this experience that has caught the attention of some top law firms, with Linklaters, Reed Smith, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and Baker McKenzie among the firms with which BARBRI has tie-ups.

To support the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s ambition of making the profession more accessible and diverse, BARBRI introduced BARBRI Bridges, a funding initiative to support and enhance diversity and inclusion within the legal sector. One of the organisations supported by the initiative is Breaking Barriers, a refugee charity which benefits from BARBRI’s law firm partnerships to support their refugee lawyer clients in qualifying in England & Wales.

“One of our Breaking Barriers SQE scholars, Dr Assal Kareem, spoke at last year’s LegalEdCon [Legal Cheek’s annual future of legal education and training conference]. She moved the audience with her journey from being a lecturer and lawyer in Iraq to moving to the UK as a refugee. It’s an incredible story and something BARBRI is really proud to be a part of,” says Cromwell, who will be speaking at this year’s conference.

Victoria Cromwell will be speaking at LegalEdCon 2023 on 18 May

“We also have a humanitarian scholarship programme for individual’s fleeing an area of conflict that need to qualify,” she adds. “It was initially put in place to support Ukrainian lawyers coming to the UK as a result of the Russian invasion, but we’ve also had legal professionals from other countries come through.”

Cromwell also co-founded the Social Welfare Solicitors Qualification Fund (SWSQF) alongside Patrick McCann, director of learning at Linklaters and chair of the City of London Law Society’s training committee and Young Legal Aid Lawyers. The initiative sees leading law firms help financially support people already working in social welfare law, but who aren’t legally qualified, through the SQE.

“Typically, those who are practising social welfare law have a lower income than many other legal professionals,” Cromwell says. ”As a result, many find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. They want to stay in the sector and provide access to justice for the most vulnerable in society, but the organisations they work for can’t fund their SQE so they are stuck at paralegal or case worker level and can’t provide the higher level legal services that a qualified solicitor could. SWSQF asks law firms to fund SQE prep courses and exams to support them to qualify.”

Cromwell is also enthusiastic about unlocking the SQE’s potential for in-house teams to grow and retain their own talent, citing recent commercial tie-ups with Metro Bank and LexisNexis. “With the talent war going on in the private sector, in-house teams are struggling to compete. In response, they’ve identified homegrown talent opportunities from the SQE to upskill their paralegals and support them along the pathway to qualification,” she says.

Finally, ahead of her appearance at LegalEdCon next month, Cromwell gives us a flavour of what she plans to discuss. “At the moment there’s a lot of talk about what the law firm of the future will look like,” she says. “I want to consider how law schools and educators need to adapt to make sure that we are training solicitors effectively for these future needs.”

Victoria Cromwell will be speaking at LegalEdCon 2023, Legal Cheek’s annual future of legal education and training conference, which takes place in-person on Thursday 18 May at Kings Place, London. Second Release tickets are available to purchase until tomorrow (Wednesday 26 April) at 5pm.

Find out more about SQE Prep with BARBRI

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