The Solicitors Regulation Authority is to press ahead with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which will replace the current system of qualification in September 2020.
The SRA said the new approach would build trust and confidence, and help widen access to the profession.
“It will help validate different routes to qualification, including ‘earn as you learn’ pathways such as apprenticeships,” the regulator said.
“The SQE structure will also get rid of the current problem where many would-be solicitors have to take the ‘Legal Practice Course (LPC) gamble’ by paying large up-front costs, often up to £15,000, with no guarantee of a training contract or becoming a solicitor. The new assessment will introduce a more flexible approach to a period of work-based experience, addressing the training contract bottleneck.”
The SRA said the new qualification would have four elements. In order to qualify as a solicitor, candidates would need to:
- have passed SQE stages 1 and 2 to demonstrate they have the right knowledge and skills
- have been awarded a degree or an equivalent qualification, or have gained equivalent experience
- have completed at least two years of qualifying legal work experience
- be of satisfactory character and suitability.
After full implementation, candidates who have already started working towards qualifying to be a solicitor will have the choice of which route to follow – the existing route or the SQE – for a number of years. The SRA will consult on these transitional arrangements later this year.
The SRA said it had spoken to almost 9,000 people as part of 18 months of extensive engagement. Its two consultations attracted more than 500 responses.
The watchdog said it had make changes as a result to its initial proposals, including making a degree or equivalent, and a two-year period of work experience, necessary for qualification.
The SRA said the principle of an independent assessment had been backed by groups including the Law Society, the Legal Services Consumer Panel and the Junior Lawyers Division.
But it acknowledged that there had also been resistance to the SQE from some organisations, including training providers.
The SRA said it would work closely with experts – from academics to law firms – on the design, testing and delivery of the SQE.
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: "We all need to be able to trust that those who enter the profession are fit to practise. The current system cannot provide that confidence. The new SQE will provide assurance that all those who qualify, regardless of pathway or background, meet the consistent high standards we set on behalf of the public.
“It will help law firms recruit the best talent, while still giving them flexibility to tailor training to their businesses’ needs. It will help the best education providers to show just how good they are, and give candidates, from all backgrounds, a fair opportunity to qualify. And it will meet public expectations that all solicitors take the same exam and meet the same high professional standards.”
The SRA said it would soon begin the process of appointing an assessment organisation for the SQE. A summary of the responses to the consultation and the SRA’s decision on next steps is available here: www.sra.org.uk/sra/consultations/solicitors-qualifying-examination.page
The Law Society said it strongly supported centralised assessment to ensure all solicitors met consistent high standards, but insisted that the new system "must be realistic regarding work experience".
President Robert Bourns said: "We will judge these reforms on the impact on accessibility and standards. Encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to become solicitors has long been a priority for the Law Society. Accessibility to the profession and promotion of the highest standards of qualification must be paramount.
“The adequacy of the qualifying legal work experience must also be a key focus. The two-year period of work experience must be at an appropriate standard and sufficiently relevant to what the market requires."
Bourns added: "We’ve said previously that inequalities may emerge through different pathways within the work-based learning element, with those who follow a more traditional route being potentially perceived as better than those who follow a more flexible pathway with multiple placements.
"If the new system is to broaden access, it will be important to ensure that high quality guidance is available, and that it reaches the broadest possible community of firms and individuals. Having funding support in place will also be key to ensuring it is talent and work ethic, not background, that defines your success."
Bourns said Chancery Lane had strongly suggested that the SRA ensures the final SQE proposals meet government funding criteria and that the SRA should take steps to liaise with government as part of their work developing proposals.
Professor Andrea Nollent, Vice Chancellor & CEO at The University of Law, said: “This is an exciting time for legal education. These reforms are a unique opportunity for innovation and improvement to legal training. Our mission at The University of Law is to provide the highest quality training to all who want to become lawyers. With these reforms, as well as the changes to apprenticeships, there will be new ways for us to structure our courses to give enhanced legal and skills training to raise standards for solicitors to new levels, and to widen access to the profession.
“Whilst we welcome the degree of extra clarity this announcement brings, there are still important details outstanding. In particular, we look forward to the SRA providing more specifics of the SQE syllabus and assessment methods. These will be fundamental to developing new courses that fit the needs of employers and students, and we encourage the SRA to give more information as soon as possible.”