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    Removing barriers and increasing diversity: the impact of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)

    05 September 2023

    Alice Payne

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    4 minute read

    Punter Southall Law’s paralegal, Alice Payne, is about to qualify as a solicitor via the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (“SQE”). In this article, she considers whether the new exams are likely to succeed in their aim of removing artificial barriers to qualification and increasing diversity in the profession.

    It has now been two years since the SRA introduced the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) as a new route to qualification. One of its primary aims was to increase access to and diversity within the profession by:

    • removing the single-entry point to solicitor qualification (the Training Contract); and
    • much cheaper post-graduate legal assessments.  

    Removal of the Training Contract

    Prior to the introduction of the SQE, the only route to qualifying as a solicitor – for the past 30+ years - has been through successfully obtaining a two-year training contract with a law firm. For many years, the evidence showed that training contracts were more likely to be offered to White, privately educated graduates from a narrow band of universities.  

    In addition, the supply of graduates has nearly always outweighed the number of training contracts available and ultimately this has, over the course of a generation, left many individuals unable to qualify.  

    So, in a laudable effort to open up the profession, the SQE replaced the training contract with 2 years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). As a result, aspiring solicitors can look to qualify on the back of a wide range of legitimate work experiences including for example, voluntary work in Law Clinics or paralegal work. My own QWE has been as a paralegal working in Punter Southall Law

    Cheaper Assessment

    It has always been the case that any graduate looking to qualify as a solicitor has had to pass post-graduate legal assessments. For a Law graduate, this was the one-year Legal Practice Course (LPC). For non-Law graduates, it was the LPC and the one-year Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The LPC alone could cost anywhere between £9,000 - 17,000 depending on where it was studied. The huge cost of such exams were an obvious barrier to those without training contracts and law firms covering their cost.  

    So, again, in a laudable effort to remove this barrier, the SRA overhauled the post-graduate assessment altogether and introduced the standardised and centralised SQE exams. SQE 1 tests legal knowledge; Part 2 tests legal skills. When the new SQE was introduced, the cost of sitting both exams was significantly lower than the previous exams - £4,115.  

    It was considered that the more flexible QWE and the cheaper SQE exams would help to bring about fairer and more diverse access to the profession – but have they?

    Two years on

    When the first SQE results were released last year, the gap between the success/pass rates between White and racially minoritized groups were clearly evident. The SRA commissioned the University of Exeter to conduct an independent review of the factors that influence the ‘attainment gap’ for minority groups. Not surprisingly perhaps, its systematic literature review has found complex and wide factors influence the outcomes in these professional exams. The final research will be published next year.  

    More recent results have shown not only continuing racial disparity in results but also in social mobility factors. For example, in relation to those who attended independent and state schools and between those with a professional versus working-class backgrounds.    

    However, it is already clear that one of the primary ways that the SRA intended for the SQE to democratize access to the profession – that is, cheaper exams – is already missing the mark.   Firstly, in the space of one year, the cost of sitting the SQE exams has increased by 11% but more critically, this headline cost fails to take into account the cost of preparation. It is inconceivable that candidates would sit either exam without undertaking preparation courses. Why?

    Firstly, because these exams are tough (the SQE2 is officially more difficult than its predecessor; it is set at the competence level of a trainee solicitor) and secondly, because individuals can sit the exams on no more than 3 occasions (and only 51% of students passed the most recent SQE 1 exam and the rest cannot therefore proceed to SQE 2). So, when looking at the cost of the SQE, it is impossible to ignore the cost of preparation, and that cost is high.      

    The real cost of the SQE

    Online part-time preparation courses can cost between £4,100 and £6,498. More traditional full time preparation courses can cost between £5,650 and £11,500. Accordingly, the Law Society estimates that the SQE prep courses and exams will cost students over £20,000!

    Add into this the fact that there is no government loan funding available for these courses and the reality is that the new ‘cheaper’ route to the profession could end up just as expensive as the old route. Once again, those with training contracts may have their SQE prep courses paid for by the bigger law firms.   

    What does the future look like for aspirational lawyers?

    The SQE is, at this stage, a work in progress and the removal of the training contract as a pre-requisite for qualification as a solicitor is a really welcome change. However, it’s clear that cost remains a huge barrier to entry into the profession. The Law Society is pushing for loan schemes to be supported by the government and Exeter University’s report will hopefully make practical recommendations to reduce racial and wider social mobility disparities in those succeeding with the SQE.    

    It is also clear that law firms are critical in opening up the profession – regardless of whether a student sits the LPC or SQE. Over and above efforts to recruit and financially support a more diverse group of individuals through their SQE, they now have the opportunity to creatively re-evaluate how they can offer additional opportunities for Qualifying Work Experience. With formal training contracts no longer needed to qualify, law firms can offer QWE to a wider group of people – whether that is through placements or paralegal work.

    My Future

    I was lucky. The SQE was introduced not long after I finished my Open University Law degree. I was able to avoid the (too often) dispiriting experience of applying for endless training contracts and instead work as a paralegal at Punter Southall Law gaining great experience of corporate, employment and dispute resolution. Punter Southall Law also gave me an interest free loan to undertake both SQE preparation courses and exams as well as paid study leave and this is exactly the type of help that I hope more firms will start to offer talented candidates from a wide range of backgrounds.    

    I already know that a career in law requires grit, resilience and curiosity. These qualities are not the preserve of a privileged few – they are found across society – and it is time for the legal profession to reflect that.  

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    The SQE is, at this stage, a work in progress and the removal of the training contract as a pre-requisite for qualification as a solicitor is a really welcome change.

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