Rather than being fazed by the super-exam, Sarah Hutchinson reckons the legal profession should view it as an exciting opportunity to improve education and training
Most people taking the Legal Practice Course (LPC) this year weren’t born when it was invented, way back in Ye Olde 1990s. But some veterans of the legal education world remember the introduction of the LPC — and, just as today with the replacement Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), not everyone was happy about it.
“There was a huge outcry,” recalls BARBRI’s Sarah Hutchinson. “Some were predicting a decline in standards and a deterioration in the quality of those trainees entering the profession.” Thirty years on, the response to change is much the same in some quarters, only now deployed in defence of the LPC instead of against it. Hutchinson, by contrast, reckons that the SQE has much to recommend it — provided it helps shake up the legal education market as intended.
Introduced in 1993, one aim of the LPC was to stimulate competition by encouraging more organisations to offer the course and disrupting the dominant position of the College of Law. It worked at first, with the rise of the new BPP Law School and a flurry of universities offering the LPC. Today, only about one in five British universities offer the LPC, and the Big Two of BPP and ULaw have nearly 80% of the market.
“Every examination has its strengths and weaknesses,” says Hutchinson. “The LPC is limited in its ability to assess basic legal principles typically taught at undergraduate level, whereas SQE1 provides a thorough review and test of the functioning legal knowledge we should expect from every solicitor.” The LPC has also been criticised because each LPC university sets its own exams with little national standardisation.
With the SQE inbound, BARBRI sees its opportunity to offer competitively priced and efficient SQE preparation courses. The Texan-based company hopes to take advantage of the fact that “the SQE Stage 1 is similar in subject coverage and assessment methodology” to the US bar exams for which BARBRI is the #1 course provider. BARBRI is confident it can give students the best chance to succeed in the exams without breaking the bank. Hutchinson says “we are single-minded in ensuring our students maximise their chances of success in the exams”.
SQE Stage 2 assesses the trainees’ knowledge and skills at the point of qualification and BARBRI has that base covered through its recent purchase of the Altior legal training company.
Hutchinson explains that “the training they deliver is akin to the SQE2: drafting, writing, advocacy, financial skills. The reason we have purchased the business of Altior is to supplement our expertise from the States with the Altior expertise in SQE2-type training”. With so much riding on the success of the SQE, it’s no surprise that BARBRI will be out in force at LegalEdCon North, the legal education and training conference — organised by yours truly — that takes place in Manchester on 30 January. Hutchinson is particularly looking forward to hearing from the “fantastic” Isabel Parker of Freshfields and Manchester Uni’s Claire McGourlay (“one of the most talented law teachers in the country”).
Why is the SQE shake-up particularly relevant to the North of England? Hutchinson is keen to stress that she doesn’t believe in a north/south divide, as plenty of firms north of Watford Gap have the kind of international practices most commonly associated with the City of London. But the north does have some “unique centres of excellence” — such as Manchester, which for some years now has played host to back office outposts of megafirms such as Freshfields and Latham & Watkins.
This “northshoring” has its critics, but for Hutchinson it reflects the educated workforce in university cities like Manchester as well as the lower costs of living. The net result is a big pool of ambitious law graduates and other legal support staff — exactly the kind of people that the super-flexible super-exam can help become solicitors. Because the SQE is easier to do in stages, graduates who start off in paralegal-type roles should be able to qualify while earning a living.
“It’s much easier to integrate SQE1 and 2 into the workplace than it is with the LPC,” Hutchinson explains. “There are routes through the LPC that are part-time and online, but they’re clunky, time-consuming and not very popular. The legal services centres and the big national firms that are headquartered in Manchester will undoubtedly be looking at the SQE as an opportunity to rethink how they qualify people”. Instead of chugging straight back into study, new grads will be able to get some practical experience under their belts without forfeiting the opportunity to qualify.
This model — taking the professional exams in stages, while working — may represent a culture change for firms used to having students finish all their exams before going anywhere near a client. But Hutchinson points out it’s the norm outside the legal world: “in every other profession, whether it’s accountancy, actuaries, insurance, HR, you do your professional exams while you’re working”, she says. It’s also how solicitors qualify in common-law Ireland, where trainees go back and forth from training contract to classroom learning over two years.
In fact, wannabe lawyers could even start to get their heads around SQE-style exams during their undergrad degree. Hutchinson is talking to many northern law schools about a collaboration to “drip-feed SQE preparation into their degree programmes to support their students”. The evidence from the States, Hutchinson says, is that the sooner students start to prepare for the multiple-choice format of the bar exam, the better they ultimately do.
Victoria Cromwell, head of SQE at BARBRI, will be speaking at LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January 2020. Final release tickets for the Conference can be purchased here.