When Mary met Julie - Dissecting the Solicitors’ Qualification Examination

MB: Thank you for coming in today, can you tell us who you are and why you are here?

JB: I am Julie Brannan and I’m the Director of training and Education at the SRA and I am the person who is leading the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).

MB: Can you just tell me a bit about the SQE and what it is?

JB: The SQE is a national (and international) licensing exam, it will be the single suite of examinations that everyone will have to pass if they want to be admitted as a Solicitor of England and Wales. No matter how you have trained; whether you have trained as an apprentice, a law graduate, a non-law graduate or whether you are an overseas qualified lawyer, everybody will have to come through the SQE. This is so they can demonstrate that they are safe to practise, and consumers and employers will know that everybody who has passed the SQE has been assessed to the same consistent standard, and demonstrated that they have what it takes to practise as a solicitor.

MB: Amazing, and why did this come about, what are the SRA trying to address?

JB: Well I think dual concerns. Firstly, a concern is that we now authorise a large number of universities, and as that number has grown it has become harder and harder for us to be absolutely sure that all the universities are assessing people against the same standard. We know that there is a consistent pattern of different pass rates between different universities and it ranges from about 30% to 100%. That is a big range of pass rates, and that might be down to candidates of different academic ability and teaching which varies in effectiveness. But it might be because of inconsistent standards, and it is very difficult for us to monitor what is really going on. It may be fine, but we can’t be sure.

We are also concerned that the current pathway has barriers to access which aren’t about whether you are bright, talented and a good person to be a solicitor. They aren’t about your intrinsic ability, but about whether you can afford to pay the high cost of training, and whether you can find a training contract.

It’s those barriers, which have nothing to do with talent, that we want to try and address. The SQE means there is one consistent standard, but the other part is that we will no longer specify the particular qualifications that you will have to gain in the process of becoming a qualified solicitor. So, we will no longer require the Legal Practice Course. You can go through the university route, or through being an apprentice, through an integrated mixture of classroom and work-based learning, or through qualifying as an overseas solicitor, we don’t mind or specify. Law degrees might be very different in nature, we don’t mind what process you went through, as long as at the end of the process you have learnt the necessary knowledge and skills to get to that standard.

MB: I think that’s so important, because looking at training contracts, they can vary so much, some people are stuck by a photo copier for six months and still qualify at the end without being tested. So, I completely agree that having one standard can only be a good thing.

JB: Yes, that’s something that junior division lawyers talked to us about. They are aware from their members, that as you say, what happens on a training contract can be variable. But in fairness to law firms, there is no benchmarking process at the end of a training contract, to help them to judge whether a person is good enough. There is no mechanism for them to see the law firm around the corner and see what they think a training contract looks like and what a qualified lawyer should look like. It’s individual decisions, individual people, in individual firms around the country. It is another reason why there may be inconsistent standards.

MB: Absolutely, and can you just talk me through the whole process, if I was a law student about to enter the world of the SQE how I would go about qualifying?

JB: The SQE will consist of two different stages. SQE 1 will be an assessment of what we call functioning legal knowledge. It is not intended to be a memory test, it’s intended to be an opportunity for people to demonstrate that they can take fundamental legal principles and they can apply them to common scenarios that a newly qualified solicitor might encounter. People must pass that before they go on to attempt SQE 2 which is a skills test. Can you interview a client, can you draft a legal document, can you do a simple piece of advocacy, those sorts of skills.

We expect that in between the two there will be qualifying work experience. That’s a period of at least two years working in legal services. We won’t specify the three-seat rotation round that we have at the moment.We will simply say that experience must be such as to enable you to develop the competencies for qualifying as a solicitor. We have set those competencies out in the Solicitors Competence Statement, and that is what the work experience must help you to develop. We will then check and assess that through the SQE 2 skills assessment.

So although we don’t require it, we expect most people will do: SQE 1, then Qualifying Work Experience, then SQE 2.

A common route to prepare for SQE 1 might be that someone does a law degree, which might include preparation for SQE 1.Alternatively, a university might be purely academic in orientation, and not include professional preparation. My advice for prospective students is to check whether the universities that they are looking at, build SQE 1 training into their law degree, or whether they expect students to also complete a top-up course to prepare for SQE 1. That will be a separate cost, so they just need to give a thought to that when choosing their university. SQE 1 will probably be taken about the time of graduation, and we think that a lot of employers will expect people to have passed SQE 1 before beginning qualifying work experience. Then there will be two years qualifying work experience, and towards the end of that we expect people will then do their skills assessment having developed those skills in the office.

MB: I suppose that opens up the profession. As you will have your traditional firms who people can come to do their two years, and the firm can set which department they go to and the skills they learn. But if I’m a graduate and I don’t have a training contract then I can effectively build my own training contract through the paralegal work I do, if I keep a good record of the skills I’m meeting.

JB: You’re absolutely right Mary. That qualifying work experience is broader than a training contract. It can include working as a paralegal, if you’re on a sandwich degree, it can include that year placement in industry, it can be your apprenticeship, there are lots of different ways of gaining that experience. It’s a really important reform, and we hope that it will enable people to get that work experience. Also it spreads the cost of qualifying. There will be a fee for taking SQE 1 and 2. But you can begin to assemble your qualifying work experience either through a training contract package or through working as a paralegal, and provided that you can pass your SQE 2 assessment, you know that you can qualify. You don’t have to gamble on getting a job afterwards in order to be able to qualify. That old LPC gamble where you have to pay £16,000 upfront, not knowing whether you’ll get a job at the end of it, that will go. You can spread the cost over time, and you’ve got more control over your ability to get work experience.

MB: Now with university fees and potentially the LPC fees, people are coming out with £20,000 worth of debt even before they have a job. It’s really worrying, so that sounds amazing.

JB: We think the cheapest way to qualify will be to do a degree that incorporates SQE 1 into it. We’ve modelled the cost of the SQE 1 assessment at approximately £1,100 - £1,650, and the cost of SQE 2 at £1,900 – £2,850.This isn’t exact and we will know the exact cost when we have finalised the format of the exam. That does mean you have to pay those fees to take SQE 1, but then if you pass that it’s more within your control to get qualifying work experience. Then once you have secured Qualifying Work Experience, you can do SQE 2, and if you pass that, you know you will qualify.

MB: I think that makes a lot of sense. I think I’m right in saying that Kaplan is now the place where you go to do the SQE 2 exam?

JB: That’s right. With one suite of exams we wanted to have one single provider and we wanted that provider to be quite separate from anybody that is offering tuition. It’s an independent external assessment which is fair for everybody. Kaplan is now heavily involved in the development of the assessment. We are now looking at how SQE 1, with the knowledge assessment, will work. We are doing a pilot of that which is due to run in March this year, so that will help us check that our assessment model works, or what refinements and changes we might need to make.

MB: And is that with students?

JB: It is with students, there will be about 400 candidates who will be taking that and we’ve worked to get a good cross section of the type of people that we think will be taking the live SQE. That’s a big enough sample size for us to get meaningful statistical data to check that the exam is reliable, and that it can properly distinguish between people who know and can apply their legal knowledge, and those that still have more work to do. That work is all well underway. We’re also beginning to look at SQE 2 and we’re looking at the format that that might take. SQE 1 will be a computer-based assessment, lots of multiple choice/best answer questions, whereas SQE 2 will examine skills through role plays of your oral skills and practical simulations of written tasks, the sort of tasks you would do as a newly qualified solicitor. We are looking at that model for SQE 2, and we think that pilot will happen towards the backend of this year.

MB: So, the SQE is aiming to come in 2021?

JB: Yep, what we have said is that SQE will come in in autumn 2021. This year is given over to the pilot, testing and development, and next year we have some more governance to go through. We will publish the final version of the Assessment Specification so that education training providers can look at that and begin planning the details of their preparatory courses. I think the new SQE courses will probably begin to start running 2020/2021 so that those courses are available for people ahead of that 2021 implementation date.

MB: Amazing, so what would be your one bit of advice for a future student who is an undergrad at the moment?

JB: You’re right to suggest that people in that position will have a choice. If you started to train under the existing system, you have a choice about whether to carry on and qualify under the existing system or to switch to SQE. What I would say, is that if you are in the lucky position that you have a training contract and it is funded then firstly go and talk to your employer, and if they say we want you to do the LPC, then do what they say as you have your pathway to qualification mapped out.

If you’re not in that position then the advantages of waiting for the SQE to come onboard, although that does mean waiting for 2021, are that we do think that it will be cheaper, and you then have the advantage of greater flexibility around qualifying work experience, so you have both of those advantages. You may not have to pay a full £16,000, but you do have to pass the whole of the SQE, you do not get any credit or exemptions for having a qualifying law degree. If you go down the SQE route , then you can get paralegal experience and qualify that way as an alternative to getting a training contract.

MB: So basically now if you are a law student, you need to think about keeping a good diary and evidence of the work experience you are doing, the skills you are gaining, and compare it with the Solicitors competency Statement, because even if you do decide to do the LPC you could still use that through the equivalent means route?

JB: There are two things to say about that. Firstly, any work experience that you are gathering now could count towards your qualifying work experience at a future date. What we have said about qualifying work experience is that it must be no more than four employers, so do think about that. But if you go off and start work as a paralegal, if you get 6-12 months under your belt, that can potentially count as qualifying work experience even before SQE comes in. What I would strongly advise someone in that position do is to get the COLP, that’s the Compliance Officer for Legal Practice, in that law firm to sign off that that work has happened, because we will require it to be signed off by the COLP in the law firm where you have worked. As long as you have that then you can submit that work experience to us and we will take that into account.

The other thing you mention is another route, particularly for those who already have the LPC, that is the Equivalent Means route, which is already on our books. If you’re doing the LPC at the moment, or if you’ve already completed it and you can’t get a training contract; you can work as a paralegal, and if your work is equivalent to a training contract, you fill out a diary that sets out what you have been doing in order to demonstrate to us that what you have done is equivalent to a training contract. For a fee (about £600), you can send that into us and we will evaluate it. It is sent out to an external assessor who looks at it, reads it, and checks that its equivalent to a training contract, and if it is then you can qualify through that route. If a bit more evidence is needed, we will let you know and give you the opportunity to submit that. Then you get another opportunity to top up the evidence, and if it gets through then, you can qualify through that route. So this route is already there.

MB: Its funny because I don’t think that that route is shouted about enough, so it is definitely important to make everyone know about this in case you are in that position.

JB: I just wanted to say one thing from my end before we go and that is a shout out to Career in Law which is our social media resource about how to qualify as a solicitor. Have a look at that, we tweet about it, it’s on Instagram and Facebook, Career in Law, and what that does is explain how you qualify under the existing system and how you will qualify in the future through SQE. So, take a look!

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