Leading legal education experts demystify the new training regime
With the first Solicitors Qualifying Exams (SQE) only months away, apprehension among students and graduates who wish to enter the legal profession is palpable.
At our latest virtual event, ‘How to fund your SQE — with BARBRI, Linklaters, the SRA and The Law Society’, the majority of audience members voted that the SQE is ‘convoluted and confusing’ in a poll, reflecting what appears to be a consensus that this new pathway is difficult to navigate.
The panel sought to demystify certain aspects of the SQE on Thursday evening by sharing their insights into the assessments, along with how one can fund the new entrance examinations and preparation classes.
Regarded largely as an attempt to address the financial barrier which prevents people pursuing a career in law, the SQE is expected to be a cheaper option for qualifying as a solicitor compared to its predecessor, the Legal Practice Course (LPC). While the costs of the SQE assessments were disclosed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in July 2020 — amounting to a total of £3,980 — training providers have been slower to divulge the price points for their preparation courses. This was acknowledged by Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA, as she noted how the price of SQE prep courses appears to range from £3,000 to £16,000 due to the greater variety and choice in solicitor training.
Brannan outlined three ways of funding the standardised assessment. Firstly, Brannan spoke of the ‘earn while you learn’ model, where graduates can fund the SQE through an apprenticeship. This option is indicative of the flexibility and accessibility which the SRA hopes to achieve with the SQE as all training and assessments will be paid for by the employer, meaning trainee solicitors are not left with a large debt. Brannan then noted how all law degrees will help people prepare for the SQE to a certain extent and law students can therefore avoid the price of SQE1 tuition by opting instead to self-study. The exams are not to be underestimated however, and Brannan explained how law graduates and non-law graduates may want to enrol in a SQE preparation course which they can choose to fund “through a commercial bank loan or through instalment payment plans”.
Using a payment plan to help finance the SQE was also mentioned by Robert Dudley, BARBRI’s deputy managing director, who appeared on last week’s panel alongside Brannan. BARBRI is at the forefront of SQE preparation as it launched its first 40-week part-time course in January 2021, with the second (a 20-week course) starting in June. Dudley recognised that, “one of the key underlying principles for the SQE being introduced was to provide access to a much larger audience into the profession” and, on that account, BARBRI offers numerous scholarships and payment plans.
Students can opt to benefit from the flexible payment plans which BARBRI provides by paying an initial deposit and then spreading the cost of course fees over a maximum of eight instalments. With regards scholarships, Dudley explained that there are three types offered, some which are “merit-based and some which are needs-based”. The Essay Competition Scholarship requires students to submit an essay on how they intend to make a difference in the world once they qualify as a solicitor and the value of the ten scholarships available under this category range from £1,000 to £2,999. Academic achievement is rewarded through the First Class Honours Scholarship, where first class honours graduates can apply for a 50% scholarship. BARBRI also offers £600 towards SQE1 course fees for those who are committed to being employed by the public interest sector.
Dudley briefly discussed the different initiatives BARBRI offers with its partners, such as the scholarships created with Breaking Barriers in collaboration with Linklaters for people from refugee backgrounds, along with its scholarship in cooperation with The Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme (DAS).
Leila Lesan, the policy adviser for social mobility at The Law Society, delved deeper into the funding options offered by DAS and explained how the award is a full scholarship with additional support built in. Lesan described the award as one for “those who don’t have contacts and don’t have cash”, with applicants having to confirm that they do not have access to family money or savings. While The Law Society receives approximately 300 applications, they typically are only able to offer ten awards a year, making the DAS award an extremely competitive one.
Patrick McCann, global head of learning and development at Linklaters, assured the audience of over 200 students that City law firms are likely to continue funding their trainees as much as they are under the current system. Although McCann observed that the SQE will not require a course to be taken, he strongly advised that students invest in expert tuition in order to be “appropriately prepared for the course”. Large City firms, McCann predicts, will finance incoming trainees’ SQE preparation courses along with providing a maintenance grant, meaning candidates will be “paid to study and also the study cost will be met”. Securing a training contract, therefore, will still bestow on prospective trainees all the benefits that current trainees enjoy.
Although the complexity of the SQE was acknowledged by the panel, Dudley emphasised that the numerous “parts for students to consider” allows for greater flexibility, which must be viewed as a positive. Whether students choose to fund their SQE through an apprenticeship, scholarship, bank loan or by other means, it is clear that the new examinations are designed to address the rigidity of entering the profession.
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