Law firms braced for ‘disruptive’ demands of SRA's new qualifying ‘super exam’

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The news that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is pushing ahead with sweeping changes to legal training has provoked concerns among City law firms about the potentially “disruptive” impact of the overhaul.

The SRA has announced that the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) – dubbed by some as ‘the super exam’ – will come into use after September 2020, replacing the current system of qualification, with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) phased out.

The SQE will be split into two stages, with the first stage – which will be carried out before the beginning of a training contract – focusing on functioning legal knowledge, covering commercial and corporate, dispute resolution, property, wills and criminal law.

Key areas of concern include lingering uncertainty over whether the new regime will provide the specialist training required by many big firms. Without the LPC, will trainees be adequately prepared for the demands of City law?

BPP University Law School CEO Peter Crisp (pictured above) comments: “The implications are profound – the LPC is the gold standard for the profession. It will make a big change to how solicitors qualify. No law firm wants a trainee arriving on day one of their training contract knowing less than they know now, and with fewer skills.

“At the moment, the detail is shaky. A lot of our clients want technical training in corporate finance, legal writing and practical legal research, which appear to be absent. We will have to devise programmes for the SQE to cover the rigour of law practice in the City.”

RPC graduate recruitment partner Simon Hart adds: “With the form that stage 1 of the SQE takes, there may be additional modules that students who are taking up training contracts in the City will have to take. I’m sure there will be additional costs [for law firms].

“The devil is in the detail of the precise curriculum and range of topics, but I think some of the more commercial aspects of the curriculum will probably need extending by additional modules. For City-based practice areas, some areas of finance and corporate areas may well need additional modules.”

The phase-out of the LPC raises the possibility for aspiring lawyers to shave off one year from the typical six-year route to qualification, provided universities incorporate SQE training into law degrees. Alternatively, law schools may now develop postgraduate training courses to help students prepare for the SQE before they begin their training contracts.

Eversheds Sutherland graduate recruitment partner Ian Gascoigne comments: “Unless a particular law degree combines teaching in both aspects, we envisage that a preparatory course will be essential, and will be looking closely to see what the legal education providers develop in this area. “

Meanwhile, the timing of stage two of the SQE – which is expected to take place at the end of the training contract – is also likely to raise logistical issues for City law firms, given that trainees may have to take time out to prepare for the final exam.

Hart says: “Ultimately, we have to work out what the transition arrangements are – we will have to slightly review the two-year training experience and work out how we integrate training for SQE2. Some trainees do international secondments for six months – how do you have them doing exams out of the country?”

Gascoigne adds: “The addition of SQE2 into the training period is a significant change for law firms. Unlike the current Professional Skills Course, SQE2 will be more disruptive because skills will be rigorously examined during training period.”

Hogan Lovells associate director of legal resourcing Clare Harris adds: “We will want to see what is proposed for the assessment – that’s the big unknown at the heart of this announcement.”

Crisp says BPP will contact law firms again when the SRA confirms more details about the new assessment. Currently, more than 60 law firms send all their trainees exclusively to BPP for LPC and GDL training where appropriate.

“We have been consulting with firms, and will go out and see them again when we have flesh on the bones of all of this. We expect they will want trainees to have the same rigorous training and that we will need to devise programmes that do the best SQE.

“I feel this is a bit like Brexit. None of us think it is a good idea, but the decision has been made, so we are getting on with it.”