Alice Payne, Punter Southall Law’s paralegal considers the new route to a career as a solicitor, diversity in the profession and Gen Z lawyers
In 2020, the Legal Services Board approved the SRA’s application to overhaul the route by which individuals could qualify as a solicitor: the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
The SRA hopes that the new route will promote a diverse profession by removing ‘artificial and unjustifiable barriers’.
It was certainly the case that the traditional route to qualification as a solicitor was widely regarded as too expensive, not inclusive and, for many aspiring solicitors, simply unattainable. As someone who has recently passed SQE 1, I take a look at the recent changes and what they might lead to in the legal profession as a whole.
The Traditional Route
There was traditionally one route to qualifying as a solicitor: a two-year training contract with a law firm. Before reaching that point, law graduates needed to complete a one-year post-graduate Legal Practice Course at a cost of between £11 and £18k. Non-law graduates needed to complete the LPC and a conversion course (GDL) which cost between £10 and £13k.
For those graduates lucky enough to secure a training contract whilst still at university, the cost of these post-graduate courses was met by their law firm. However, with up to 30,000 applications for around 5,500 training contracts, the vast majority of aspiring lawyers had to meet eye-watering law school fees themselves in the hope that they might eventually secure a training contract. These debts were of course on top of their undergraduate student loans.
In 2020, individuals were estimated to have a 18.63% chance of obtaining a training contract with their odds greatly increased if they had attended Oxbridge or a Russell Group University.
The New Route to Qualifying as a Solicitor
The SQE requires all graduates to pass two exams: SQE 1 and SQE 2. The first assesses legal knowledge; the second is a skills-based assessment. Critically, candidates no longer need to (a) attend law school for one or two years or (b) complete a two-year training contract in order to qualify as a solicitor. They must instead have (in addition to SQE 1 and 2) two years Qualifying Work Experience (QWE).
What difference might this make? Firstly, the cost. The combined cost of the SQE exams is £4,115 –a huge reduction on the cost of the LPC and/or GDL.
Secondly, the removal of the requirement to complete a two-year training contract is a fundamental and innovative structural change. The SRA wanted to remove the ‘barriers’ to qualification and this was probably the biggest obstacle to qualification.
Graduates can now rely upon a wider base of experience – for example by working in law centres as well as law firms and as volunteers, paralegals or legal secretaries – provided that their experience meets the SRA’s competency-based requirements. Experience can be gained across a number of organisations and time-periods and there is no doubt that this offers a far more accessible and flexible way to gain relevant, practical experience.
Will the legal profession become more diverse?
Certainly, the cost of the SQE combined with the removal of the training contract requirement represent a fundamental shift towards opening up the profession to a wider group of candidates.
It is however important to acknowledge that in order to pass SQE 1 – which tests legal knowledge – it would be very difficult (if not impossible) to pass this exam without undertaking either a law degree or one of the SQE preparation courses. I would suggest that even as a law graduate, a preparatory course is essential to increase the chances of success.
Unsurprisingly, most of the best-known law schools have developed SQE preparation courses that cost anywhere from £2,000 to £12,000 and law firms can (and in all likelihood will) continue to operate the traditional training contract route to qualification (until this route closes in 2032).
However, there is no doubt that the range of SQE preparatory courses is wider, for example, via cheaper online learning courses.
However, whilst the SQE has potentially increased accessibility to the profession, the SRA has noted that 65% of white candidates passed the most recent SQE1 exams compared with 44% of BAME groups. For the previously conducted LPC, 65% of white students passed compared with 52% of Asian/Asian British students and 39% of Black students. The Law Society has appointed Exeter University to explore the factors driving the attainment gap.
What is Gen Z looking for from a legal career?
The introduction of the SQE unexpectedly coincided with Covid-19, its aftermath and the drastic changes in the practice of law – in particular, remote and then hybrid working.
It also coincided with a time when competition for even junior lawyers reached fever-pitch. The vast salaries being offered to newly qualified lawyers by US and Magic-Circle city firms no doubt leaves many (understandably) playing very small violins for junior lawyers, it has been hard to ignore all the articles discussing young lawyers’ mental health and burnout.
Whilst remote working has undoubtedly brought benefits, long working hours, a lack of effective supervision and support and an absence of side-by-side working within systems that value individuals by reference to their billable hours appear to have taken their toll on those at the start of their careers.
In May 2021, The Times reported that “partnership is still the carrot but one that is hanging on by an increasingly distant thread” that has led to only 23% of lawyers expressing an interest in making partner. Instead, a good work-life balance is increasingly sought by the new generation of lawyers. Legal Futures also recorded this as the most significant motivator when newly qualified lawyers considered a job role with only 22% citing a competitive salary as a role decider.
Millennials and Gen Z’ers are a generation that has experienced major economic disruption since starting our working lives, whose coming-of-age has been infused with climate crisis awareness and now also “brushed with a disaster in the form of a worldwide pandemic”. It is also a generation that carries vast student debt and the prospect of being able to buy a first property only in our mid to late 30s.
These factors seem to have created a generation that has “highly altruistic views of their careers. They are also attuned to diversity, with an eye for those firms merely paying lip service to the issue rather than seeking genuine change”.
Perhaps then, we will be a generation of lawyers that make their personal and career choices based upon longer and more sustainable factors and maybe bring the SQE’s aims to realisation.