Pathways for future lawyers: The SQE set in context

05 Jun 2017 | 7 min read

In 2013 Becky Huxley-Binns charted the path into legal practice of three children who passed their GCSEs in 2000 and tried to predict what the pathway might look like for those same future lawyers had they passed their GCSEs in 2020. At the end of her post she asked whether 4 years down the line we’d call her attempt at crystal ball gazing a reasonable guess for its day.

Those 4 years have now passed. We asked Dr Jessica Guth, Senior Lecturer in Law, Leeds Beckett University to take a new look at Becky's three future lawyers and consider whether Becky's predictions still stand.

Essentially Becky's guess was a good one given what what we knew in 2013 but things have shifted significantly making the pictures in Jess's crystal ball rather more pessimistic than the ones Becky saw.

Framework and assessment

When Becky wrote her post in 2013 we knew that there would be changes to the regulation of education and training for aspiring legal professionals. We knew the changes would be based on a competence framework. We did not know the details of that framework or how it would be assessed. We do know now that the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Competence Statement which includes the Statement of Underpinning Legal Knowledge will be assessed by the Solicitors Qualification Exam or SQE. The SQE has two parts, the first assesses knowledge through multiple choice questions whereas the second part comprises skills based assessments. In addition aspiring solicitors need to hold a degree or equivalent qualification and undertake a period of supervised practice.

So let’s presume, like Becky did, that Andrew, Julia and Stephen sit their GCSE’s in 2020. Here’s what might happen to them:

Andrew

Andrew completes his A-levels and attends a prestigious and high ranking university well known for its socio-legal and liberal approach to legal education. He studies a variety of legal subjects during his 3 year LLB Law degree including Family Law, Immigration Law and Jurisprudence.

He is one of the best students in his cohort and following a recruitment fair at his institution and an assessment day he secures a training place at one of the best know international law firms based in London. While working for them he undergoes a structured programme of study which the firm pays for and which is designed and delivered specifically for a group of firms by a private provider in London. This programme of study prepared Andrew for the SQE ensuring he receives tuition in the knowledge and skills required by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and in the skills required to pass the examinations.

Andrew qualifies as a solicitor in 2027 having already worked for the firm for 2 years.

Julia

Julia leaves school after her GCSEs and much like Becky’s future Julia, my Julia also gets a job as a receptionist in a professional services firm. She soon picks up other work and progresses to a case worker and then a case manager. She is encouraged to pick up CILEX units and is given time to do these.

She qualifies as a legal executive and continues managing a case load. Her boss then encourages her to consider qualifying as a Solicitor and the firm she works for offers to pay for an SQE prep course offered by a local university in the evenings.

Julia qualifies as a solicitor in 2029.

Stephen

Stephen leaves school after the GCSEs and gets a couple of administrator jobs. Through an agency he starts working at his local university in an office and after a while he decided he’d like to study for a law degree.

He registers for an SQE ready law degree on a part time basis and once he completes that sits the first part of the SQE which assesses knowledge.

He fails the SQE and pays for a crammer course to ensure he passes 2nd time round. He then struggles to find a place for his supervised period of work but eventually finds a paralegal job and passes the SQE2.

He qualifies as a solicitor in 2032

So why is this a more pessimistic picture than the one that Becky painted?

All 3 of our students still qualify as solicitors and all of them do it in a similar sort of time frame as the one Becky suggested. There are three different routes presented here and there are several other possible ones.

We haven’t considered someone doing a non-law degree and then an SQE prep course or someone following an apprenticeship route.

However, the bleak picture is in the assumptions we’ve made here and the things we have left unsaid. Andrew was recruited from an elite university to an elite law firm. The SQE had little impact on his degree and the skills gained from his degree were valued by the employer. The same employer would not have considered Stephen with a first class degree from a less elite university offering an SQE ready degree. He has not been exposed to valuable academic skills and critical thinking as his programme has been focused on conveying factual knowledge. His degree is deemed less valuable. Yet to outsiders the sensible thing is surely to take a degree course which prepares you for the SQE.

Julia is encouraged to continue studying and qualify but what if she hadn’t been encouraged and supported. What if her ambition had been met with indifference. How would she have been able to navigate her path to qualification and pay for the CILEX units and the SQE preparation.

Similar questions can be asked in relation to Stephen. Would he, had he had access to more insider knowledge, studied law elsewhere, at a more elite institution perhaps? Would he have prepared differently for the SQE? Would he have followed a route more similar to the one Julia followed?

The reality is that the route into the top level of the profession only exists in theory for Julia and Stephen. They are likely to be doing mostly routine legal work for which reward (both financially and intellectually) is modest. In these scenarios it is only Andrew who has genuine access to the profession and he has that because he is likely to already be privileged by virtue of where he attended School and then University.

Opportunity?

Becky proposed that the changes in regulating access to the profession could be an opportunity, that the changes did not have to represent a dumbing down of access to the legal profession. She said:

It is not about dumbing down the content, but maintaining standards whilst improving access. But it will succeed if, and this is the huge caveat, if the day one outcomes are:

  • reflective of actual legal practice;
  • meaningful without being too vague;
  • assessable; and
  • at the right standard.

As far as I can see the SQE cannot assess the competence statement requirements in a way that is reflective of actual legal practice or particularly meaningful even if it is set at the right standard and all the elements of the statement are assessable (which I am not sure they are). If the changes made to the regulation of qualification as a solicitor were about maintaining standards whilst improving access I would agree with Becky – it can and should be done.

However, there is now little evidence to suggest that this is what it is actually about and plenty of evidence to suggest that true access to the profession will not widen, it will narrow. Or more accurately, the profession will further fragment creating pockets of high value and highly valued work to which only the elite few will have access and large areas of routine legal work carried out by those channeled into what is essentially paralegal work simply by virtue of what university they went to.

Maybe this is fine if we are at least honest about it (or maybe it’s not) but to say that opening different routes and pathways to qualification up will widen access to the profession, misunderstands what the profession really is and misrepresents what opportunities might or might not be available to the future Andrew, Julia and Stephen.

Maybe Becky can come back in 4 years’ time and tell me why I was wrong to be pessimistic and that in fact the future is bright.

Area of Interest