Green light given to solicitors’ qualification reform

    The Legal Services Board (LSB) has recently approved plans for a new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) wishes to implement.

    The LSB is “the independent body responsible for overseeing the regulation of lawyers in England and Wales” and their approval is the first step towards implementing the new method of qualification. The SRA – the regulator of solicitors in England and Wales – will still have to apply for changes to various rules necessary to make the SQE viable.

    In the reshuffle, the SRA is hoping to make two particularly notable changes. The first is to make the currently required two year period of work experience more flexible. The two years would not need to be undertaken in one block, but could instead be split so that a degree with a sandwich year in a law firm could count towards qualification. It will also no longer be necessary to undertake a contentious and non-contentious seat, although the SQE will test candidates on both.

    The second major alteration would be to scrap the requirement for a law degree or GDL, in addition to an LPC; instead, a degree or equivalent qualification or equivalent work experience would be required, in addition to passing stages one and two of the SQE.

    Stage one will consist of six knowledge assessments and one practical skills assessment – the SRA has said some law degrees may incorporate stage one and it may be possible to complete this before any of the required work experience. Stage two will consist of practical skills assessments similar to the topics covered in the traditional LPC.

    Speaking of the LSB’s perspective on the approval, chief executive Neil Buckley said “The
    changes that the SRA wishes to make are significant and stakeholders have identified a
    range of associated risks…We assessed the current approved application thoroughly with
    these risks in mind and concluded that there are no grounds for refusing this application.”

    The SRA looks forward to their plans taking shape, with chief executive Paul Philip saying
    “Confirmation that we can press ahead with the development of the SQE gives employers
    and education providers the surety they need to plan fully for its introduction. Law firms and academic institutions can now design approaches to recruitment and training which reflect their specific needs”.

    The SRA has hopes that broadening the routes to qualification will improve diversity within
    the profession. Philip stated that this change “will provide opportunities for people from
    every walk of life to consider a career as a solicitor, while the introduction of qualifying work experience should address the current training contract bottleneck”.

    However, there have been concerns about the new SQE voiced from many corners. Joe Egan, President of the Law Society, has said that the LSB was right to exercise caution, because “At this point we only have a high-level outline of the SQE. The devil is in the detail”.

    Other critics include MPs on the justice committee and the City of London Law Society (CLLS), who have pointed out that the SRA have “neither demonstrated that the current system is so flawed it needs a complete overhaul nor that the new framework is superior”.

    It is hoped that the new system will be in place by 2020. Those beginning a legal education (starting at degree level) before 2020 will not necessarily be affected; they will be able to qualify via the current training contract model.

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