GMLC campaign volunteer Mary Horobin gives her opinion on the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which she is currently studying towards, and considers its effects on access to justice and access to the legal profession.
What is the SQE?
The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is the new solicitor qualification route in England and Wales, for which the first exams took place in November 2021. The SQE includes aspects of the traditional route to qualification, giving students a grounding in core legal knowledge and skills. However, rather than requiring students to obtain a Law degree and then a professional qualification (the Legal Practice Course, LPC), the SQE is simply made up of two examinations. The first examination, SQE1, tests the student’s application of law to realistic multiple choice scenarios, and the second examination, SQE2, focuses on oral and written legal skills, such as interviewing, legal research, case and matter analysis. You must pass SQE1 before being eligible to sit the SQE2 assessments.
Key differences between the LPC and the SQE
The SQE covers similar topics to the LPC but is assessed at a higher standard, that of a newly qualified solicitor. SQE examinations are standardised across England and Wales, which is not the case for the LPC. The key difference between the two qualification routes is that the SQE does not require students to complete a training contract. They can instead choose to complete two years of ‘qualifying work experience’, and this can be achieved at any point in the qualification period.
Only students who began studying law before September 2021 are eligible to still use the LPC as a qualification route. Officially, they can choose either route until 31 December 2032. In reality, a lot of institutions have already phased out LPC courses. For example, I completed my Graduate Diploma in Law (law conversion course) in 2020 and applied for the LPC, but was informed that the course is no longer being offered at my chosen institution.
What are the issues with the SQE?
An article in The Lawyer from 2000 called the LPC ‘the soap opera that needs to be axed’ due to its ununified curriculum across England and Wales, causing chaos for firms. The article shows that there have been longstanding complaints about the LPC’s lack of standardisation, which shows the need for a new system. However, it could be argued that the SQE has gone too far by centralising the assessment system and leaving students and law firms confused about the new training routes and how they fit with existing qualifications. There have also been oversights in the transition to the SQE: for example, students on the SQE route who have already studied a Graduate Diploma in Law, often at great personal expense or by taking out private loans, have no way of exempting themselves from modules on the SQE they have already been examined on, and must pay the full price to be examined on these topics again.
The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) justify the introduction of the SQE on their website, stating that it improves accessibility into the legal profession by reducing the high costs of studying law, ensuring all students are tested with uniform examinations, and removing the requirement for training contracts. However, it is debatable whether the SQE improves accessibility, and it is arguable that it actually makes legal studies less accessible.
The SQE costs a lot more than it can first seem if only examination fees are taken into account. The LPC costs £9000 to £17000, depending on where it is studied. The SQE1 exam alone (before any costs of preparation) costs £1798 and SQE2 exam costs £2766. The price of resitting SQE1 is £1622 and resitting SQE2 is £2493, an important cost to consider due to the SQE being more difficult to pass than the LPC. These fees have risen already in the short lifespan of the SQE, and are likely to rise periodically in future.
In order to study for the exams and increase their chances of passing, many students are likely to sign up to one of the range of SQE prep courses offered by institutions like Barbri, BPP, or traditional academic institutions. The Law Society estimates that SQE prep courses and exams will cost students over £20,000, not including travel, accommodation, or other living expenses.
While it is difficult to determine whether the SQE will significantly decrease the cost of qualifying as a solicitor, both routes are expensive and there is little in the way of financial support. Government student finance is not available on every SQE course (and nor is it on the LPC). Additionally, as there are a wide range of courses and providers to choose from, offering courses of different lengths and taught in different ways, there is more risk that applicants from lower-income backgrounds may have to pick a cheaper course and receive a less thorough training compared to those who could afford higher fees.
Some law firms already offer to pay for the SQE prep course for chosen applicants, but these schemes tend to be highly competitive and offered mostly by wealthier law firms, rather than those in the Legal Aid and advice sectors. Students from lower income backgrounds and those who wish to work in social welfare law are therefore at a significant disadvantage.
Accessibility to disabled students
Another example is around students with disabilities. Kaplan, the assessment organisation, has barred the use of assistive technology in the SQE, a decision which both The Law Society and the Legally Disabled project have said will hugely impact students with certain disabilities, who will have to rely on an invigilator to read the questions for them. This could put disabled students at a disadvantage, or deter them from applying for the qualification.
Ethnicity attainment gap
The SRA’s recent report on the results of recent SQE exams demonstrated that white students are currently massively outperforming non-white students, with more than a 20% difference in pass rates between white students and the average for BAME students. Though various theories have been floated as to why this might be the case and further research is commissioned, the link between access to finance to complete legal training and difficulties passing the exam has been largely sidelined.
Whatever their cause, the results of these disparities mean less diversity in the legal profession, and privileged students having a greater chance of making it further in the profession. A 2020 Bridge Group study showed that solicitors from lower socio-economic backgrounds already take 18 months longer to reach the level of ‘partner’ at their law firms, and 50% of City firm partners attended private school.
Absence of social welfare law from the curriculum
The SQE also overlooks students looking to study social welfare law. There are no options to study modules in human rights, immigration, employment, housing, community care, debt or other social welfare-related topics. The course focuses on practical application of law to commercial situations. Students must study business law, wills and probate and property law, even if they have no intention of going into these areas of practice. This promotes the misplaced idea that this type of law is the most important, and disadvantages students who go into other areas of law, as they will not have had the chance to study topics relevant to their career.
At LegalEdCon in May 2023, it was hinted that a solution to the narrow topics covered during the SQE will be large corporate institutions designing their own SQE prep courses. This ‘solution’ would again only benefit law students looking to work in commercial law. The SQE’s limited topic range is an affront to the aims of the many students, me included, who are not looking to practice commercial law, and it could lead to students feeling forced to change their career paths. At a time when legal aid providers are struggling to fill solicitor roles due to the difficulty finding solicitors who are experienced in social welfare law, it is all the more important that social welfare is placed at the heart of a legal education.
What needs to happen to make legal education more accessible?
Overall, it is debatable whether the SQE is a step backwards for increasing accessibility to the legal profession, but it is clear that is not particularly a step forward. The SQE does not appear to be more fit for the times. It has not introduced new funding options or even major scholarship opportunities, and it does not appear to have accounted for mental health, disability concerns, social mobility concerns, or for students who do not want to practice commercial law.
Legally Disabled and other groups have made it very clear what can be done to increase accessibility for disabled law students: their recommendations must be listened to and students should be allowed to use assistive technology in exams. It benefits no-one to prevent potentially excellent lawyers, with varied perspectives, from practicing law just because they were less equipped to pass two tests.
Similarly, there needs to be more financial assistance to address the disparity in pass rates. The limited funding options mean talent from less privileged backgrounds is being stunted. Loan schemes like that the Law Society are pushing for should be supported by the government. Official recommendations will be provided by the SRA in the 2024 follow up report on the SQE and these should be acted upon.
Students should be able to choose to focus more on commercial or social welfare topics, rather than being made to study just one core syllabus. To tackle the issue of students being put off a career in social welfare law, there should be a broader range of legal viewpoints and careers advertised throughout a student’s education. In my entire time at school, two years at college, and university studies, I was not made aware of options in the legal profession outside of commercial law. During my year studying the GDL there were frequent visitors and events centred around commercial law firms but never any representing social welfare law. It was only through my own research and volunteering that I found out about careers in law that were not centred around commercial law. This should not have been the case, and this situation, on top of the SQE not covering non-commercial topics, will surely discourage many law students who may have had great and impactful careers in social welfare law. There should be more pressure on schools and particularly universities to advertise all areas of law and for them to form relationships with law centres and other social welfare institutions.
GMLC is aware that Mary’s experience of both the GDL and the new SQE is not uncommon. The SQE could provide a wider access platform to under-represented communities into both into the legal profession generally and into careers in asocial welfare law in particular, if it adopted many of the recommendations outlined above. GMLC will use its experience and those of its staff and volunteers to inform the debate regarding accessibility, the exam process and funding or bursary opportunities.
GMLC is currently working with both the Justice First Fellowship and the Social Welfare Solicitors Qualification Fund to provide roles for trainees across our legal teams in employment, benefits and housing law. Through our Legal Advocacy Support Programme (LASP), GMLC works with students from Manchester universities to train the next generation of social welfare lawyers in advocacy. Many of our LASP students have gone on to become barristers, solicitors and other legal and advice professionals.
Photo credit: ‘A Family Law Book Amongst Other Legal Books, Manchester Central Library’, DPP Law, Flickr, 2017.