From September 2021 all would-be solicitors will be assessed using a new two-stage centralised “super-examination” that will change the legal qualification system in England and Wales.
The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) marks the conclusion of a decade-long review of the qualification system in light of key regulatory, social, and economic changes in the 30 years since it was last reformed. For training providers preparing for the shakeup, where are the emerging opportunities and challenges in a changing marketplace?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) introduction of the SQE aims to standardise and simplify the process of qualification – allowing for greater flexibility in training provision, access to a broader range of qualifying work experience opportunities, reducing financial uncertainty, and widening diversity and inclusion within the sector. Getting to grips with the new regime may appear daunting but those who are well-positioned will be able to drive innovation within the sector.
Thinking ahead of these changes and looking beyond the introduction of the SQE, course providers have a critical window of time to re-tailor their courses to their present – and potential – market, given the likely increased competition and variety of course options that will soon become available. A recent report published by Hook Tangaza, has found that a new cohort of students is likely to be drawn to the new qualification – this will require structural changes for law schools.
Integrating innovation and technology into the curriculum
After Covid-19, one strong theme is clear: our acceleration towards a digital economy is increasing. Therefore, the need to develop competency in new technology skills for both legal practice and delivery of services becomes ever more important. Emerging legal areas, such as risk mitigation in blockchain, coding, cybersecurity, and machine learning, mean that a new generation of lawyers will require an in-depth understanding of emergent tools. Building this valuable skill base with the new SQE and accompanying Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) will mean the legal sector can grow in parallel with the needs of the booming digital economy. Creating a new class of “digital lawyer” is the next logical step for education providers – emerging sectors will have a strong demand for legal services.
Given this shift, how might a fully integrated and commercially aware university SQE programme look? The answer to these questions is in part a new incentive for education providers to forge deeper more meaningful ties with industry. Closer collaboration and partnerships with key industry firms to create blended learning programmes will be the optimal route, so as to bring the workplace into the classroom and vice versa.
More competition in a fragmented market
The professional legal education market is expanding to include all undergraduates who might wish to pursue a professional qualification but are put off by the cost or difficulty of obtaining a training contract. Catering to this new cohort will require a deeper understanding of their needs and how best they are able to (re)qualify.
Law schools will need to create tangible SQE pathways for both home and international students while also tending to existing programmes running in parallel. This will naturally lead to a variety of course options. Schools will need greater clarity and transparency to effectively carve out a niche in such a market, and so demonstrating advantages will be an ongoing activity.
Some UK universities have begun to adapt to these changes by offering SQE compliant courses by removing non-essential electives to make room for SQE specific topics. While these new courses are ready for 2021, ongoing reflection will be needed to develop course provision as more stakeholders become involved. For example, individual law firms may choose to engage with legal education providers to supply bespoke courses which go beyond the “teaching for the test” that would be required in order to prepare candidates for the SQE. In such cases, law departments will need to take into consideration how this might affect their overall market positioning and how it might broaden trainee intake.
It is also possible that other foreign legal education and training organisations may enter the SQE market. There are some jurisdictions, such as those in the United States, which have similar centralised assessments leading to professional qualifications. Others, such as Australia, have practical skills providers who could enter the market for SQE 2. So we can expect to see new providers emerging to meet the new market demands created by the SQE. These, in turn, could be potential collaborators for law schools and universities in designing SQE-ready courses.
Shaping the future lawyer
For law schools, the SQE will not just change the costs and dynamics of solicitor qualification at a macro level, it will impact on individuals. Making a successful transfer to the SQE will mean a rethink of structural rigidities of departmental systems and processes that have long produced sub-optimal outcomes for the regulator, employers, universities, and other training providers but, above all, aspiring solicitors themselves.