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The new route to qualifying as a solicitor in England and Wales, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will go live in September 2021. Whilst those who have already embarked on existing routes will have years to complete them, it’s anticipated that the switch over to the new route will be fast, with early adopters such as Deloitte already offering three year training contracts that include both parts of the SQE. So what’s changing and what opportunities does Obelisk Support see emerging for future lawyers and the profession as a whole?

What’s changing

The aim of the changes, which have been brewing since a review of legal education back in 2011, is to make the entry route to the profession more flexible, more accessible and more consistent.

Going forward, there will be four essential elements to becoming a solicitor:

  • A degree or equivalent level education
  • Successful completion of SQE 1 and 2
  • Satisfactory character and suitability
  • Completion of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE)

SQE1 will assess foundation legal knowledge across a range of practice areas using multiple choice single best answer questions.

SQE2 will assess practical legal skills, including legal research, writing, drafting, advocacy, case analysis and client interviewing.

QWE must be equivalent to two years’ full time work and can comprise of work at up to four organisations.

What we like

The aim of the SRA was to make the pathway into the profession more accessible, and based on what we know currently, they have made sensible progress. Proposed fees for the examinations are comparable to similar professional assessments in other fields. There is scope for preparatory courses to be delivered in a variety of ways, offering a range of price points, and some law degree programmes are already planning to include classes to prepare graduates for the SQE1.

More significant is the change to the requirements for QWE. The SRA have removed the requirement to cover both contentious and non-contentious work, making it much easier for organisations who are not law firms to offer qualifying experience. The SQE assessments also fit neatly into apprenticeship and degree apprenticeship programmes, opening up opportunities for candidates to train over a longer period of time but without incurring student debt.

The traditional training contract can still be counted as QWE, however relevant degree placements, paralegal work or work in law clinics can all make up QWE as well. This removes the potential bottleneck created by the limited number of training contracts, particularly important in the light of potential economic restrictions on firms caused by the C-19 pandemic and Brexit.

This also opens up more opportunities for prospective lawyers who know they want to work in-house to train with a company or companies, rather than spending time in private practice first. Expanding opportunities to enter the profession and encouraging innovation in the training process should lead to a greater diversity of talent and experience that would benefit both consumer and corporate clients.

What are the potential pitfalls?

Whilst the costs of the SQE examinations themselves are predicted to be relatively affordable, at around £4,000 in total, at the time of writing there are relatively few details of the course fees that will be charged to help candidates prepare. These are “high stakes” tests, so whilst it would be possible to sit them without completing an organised course, the pass rate for those doing so is unlikely to be high.

There are also early indications that City law firms are likely to expect lawyers training with them to carry out bespoke training courses, potentially leading to more, not less, elitism in the profession. Firms will also have to decide how to manage the timing of preparation for and completion of the different parts of the SQE alongside QWE responsibilities. Whilst the SRA suggest SQE2 is taken after QWE, firms planning on investing time and effort in training are likely to prefer to know that it has been completed before QWE starts.

Ultimately, bringing extra flexibility into the training process is a positive change for potential solicitors and their employers. However, much as the SQE itself is only the beginning of a career in law, introducing the new pathway is only the starting point – the hard work comes in embedding changes in working practices and training delivery across the industry. At Obelisk we hope these changes will prompt more firms and in-house teams to embrace the opportunity to open up more innovative routes into law and invest in the lawyers of the future.

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