On 25 April, the Solicitors Regulation Authority announced that it was indeed launching the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) meaning that in order to qualify as a solicitor, candidates will 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.
(For the details of the SQE, see the SRA webpages)
In a 2014 article published in the Law Teacher Professor, Chris Ashford and I highlighted the importance of a liberal legal education and socio-legal approaches to studying law and hoped that the voices of those advocating such approaches would be heard in the development of a new regulatory framework for the education and training of solicitors. It has become clear that our pleas fell on deaf ears.
As Chair of the Association of Law Teachers, I have already expressed the Association’s concerns about the way in which the consultation process has been portrayed, and as part of the Socio-Legal Studies Executive Committee I have outlined particular concerns in relation to the impact the SQE is likely to have on law school curricula and on equality and diversity within the profession(s). Below I outline some of my personal concerns about the SQE, which may be broader and more specific than those held by the associations with which I am involved.
- The SQE does not meet the aims set out for reforming the regulatory framework.
The SRA has not made clear what problems or issues the SQE framework is designed to address. The Legal Education and Training Review, commissioned by the SRA the BSB and IPS, made some recommendations for improvements but concluded that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the current education and training framework. The SRA has suggested that there is concern over the quality of legal advice given to the general public but it has not made the case that these concerns relate to the education and training of solicitors or that the SQE would address these concerns. The SRA has further argued that qualification as a solicitor is too costly and therefore puts off potential aspiring solicitors who do not come from wealthy backgrounds. I agree that access to the profession is a huge problem but I fail to see how the SQE would fix this. There is no evidence that the SQE will in fact offer a significant reduction in cost.
Finally, the SRA has argued that the SQE framework allows for a wider range of pathways to qualification which will widen access. Again, I agree that widening access is a positive step, if it does indeed widen access to the profession as a whole. The SRA have however ignored the huge variety of work, work places and roles which make up the solicitor’s profession. While access may be easier to some sections of the profession, the elite firms will continue to recruit from the elite universities and the equality gap is actually likely to widen rather than narrow. It is quite clear from the summary of the consultation responses provided by the SRA that there is no confidence in the fact that the SQE has satisfactorily addressed the question of equality and diversity and that it has the potential to make matters much worse than they currently are.
So even based on the SRA’s stated aims for introducing the SQE, there seems little justification as there is no evidence that it can achieve those aims. There are additional concerns.
- The Content or subject coverage of the SQE gives a skewed view of law and does not cover the work most solicitors do.
The SQE will, according to the SRA, be the mechanism for testing the knowledge a solicitor should know and what a solicitor should know is laid down in the SRA’s competence statement. The statement which is made up of a set of competencies and a Statement of underpinning Legal Knowledge (SULK) provides us with a particular view of law. The SULK covers, Ethics, Wills, Tax, Property law, Criminal Law and Evidence, Civil and Criminal Litigation, the Law of Organisations, Torts, Contract, English and Welsh Legal Systems, Constitutional and EU Law. I called it a syllabus of rich man’s law in the SLSA blog. The SRA have justified the focus of the SULK on the basis that it covers the reserved areas of activity. However, there are key areas of law not covered here and while some of those will fall into the realms of elite city firms, many are the bread and butter of smaller firms serving their local communities. The SULK and the SQE do not include things like family law, employment law, social welfare law or immigration law – areas of law, I would argue are vital.
Perhaps even more importantly the SQE, in an MCQ style assessment where candidates will have minutes to answer each questions, cannot assess an in-depth understanding of fundamental principles, tensions, discussions or approaches to law. It cannot assess (or even highlight) that different approaches or legal tradition might conceptualise and therefore solve legal problems very differently. Preparation for the SQE cannot teach candidates to think critically (or maybe even to think at all). It can simply prepare them to answer multiple choice questions. While students may be taught critical thinking skills as part of their degree or equivalent experience, I fear that the introduction of the SQE will fundamentally change the nature of many law degrees so that being able to think critically about law will no longer be a priority and instead cramming in knowledge and learning how to answer SQE style questions will become the norm. This brings me to my third concern.
- The SQE will fundamentally change the nature of legal education.
I have a particular view of what law degrees and legal education should be. To me law is about much more than learning legal rules and how to apply them. It is about evaluating, critiquing and thinking about law and legal problems, it’s about how law plays out in our lives and about developing skills which will help our students ‘make their minds their own’ (Nussbaum). An SQE ready degree is likely to be very different from a current qualifying law degree and could be a million miles removed from any notion of a liberal law degree.
Julie Brannan of the SRA has said repeatedly (at several events) that the SRA is not concerned about what we do in our law degrees, they are just concerned with regulating entry into the profession and I have sympathy with that view, that is after all the SRA’s remit. However, I do think that it is a little naive. Changes in law degrees are likely to have a knock-on effect on what many aspiring solicitors know and can do, and an unintended consequence of the SQE may be a dumbing down of law degrees or a shift towards surface rather than deep learning and a move away from law as an academic discipline and all round good degree. This would be a real shame given that so many (more than half) of law graduates do not enter the legal professions and a law degree is a well-rounded and sought after degree.