Getting it All Wrong! Legal Education and the SQE
Tony Bradney said (in his recent Law Teacher article): ‘Only if law schools choose to align their teaching with the new examination, if law degrees become degrees to become a solicitor, will the SQE have an influence on law schools’.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because it is a really important point and one which seems to be getting lost somewhere. As I have been thinking about this anyway and the SQE madness has been whirring away at the back of my brain somewhere, I was delighted to accept an invitation to go and speak about it at the Law School at Newcastle University today. As usual I was utterly useless at following my notes and am now just as useless at remembering what I said but below is a brief outline of roughly the argument I was going to make. I am not sure what it adds to the things I have said elsewhere recently but maybe it is useful nonetheless
- What is the SQE?
Well this is relatively well rehearsed I think and yet I am always surprised that there are people who really should know, who do not. That wasn’t the case in the audience today so I didn’t have to explain. Let’s be clear though, the SQE is not a new course or qualification as such. It’s just an exam. It’s a 2 part exam with part 1 testing legal knowledge and its application in 3 MCQ tests and then some legal research and writing and part 2 testing some professional legal skills like advocacy, client interviewing, drafting etc. In order to qualify as a solicitor the SQE is one of 4 requirements, the others being a degree or equivalent level qualification, being of suitable character and a substantial period of work experience. The slides from a recent SRA event hosted by Coventry University are quite useful at providing an outline
- Why reform the route to qualification?
Excellent question. Maybe simply because there always seems to be someone who thinks something should change. Maybe simply because we have review after review after review after review of legal education and training. Maybe because someone somewhere in the SRA (or elsewhere) had an idea and nobody who heard it said ‘just hang on a sec, let’s think this through’ or maybe because the proposed changes fit a neo-liberal market driven and status quo protecting agenda. The original rationale appears to have been based on three main issues though: Widening access to the profession, protecting consumers of legal services and complaints about the quality of graduates and the varying standards across the education and training providers (see all the Training For Tomorrow consultation documents etc). I don’t find any of those points particularly convincing. The Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) didn’t find too much wrong with legal education and training. It rightly notes that the cost of qualification was high and thus a barrier to access. It made some other recommendations all of which had potential for good, bad or indifferent regulatory outcomes. Chris Ashford and I wrote about that in a 2014 paper published in the Law Teacher (give me a shout if you don’t have access). There is nothing in the LETR which suggests the need for SQE though so let’s look at the 3 points underpinning the rationale in a little more detail.
- Complaints about the quality of graduates
I find this irritating. The evidence is weak. The claim is based on pretty selective consultation and anecdotal evidence from a pretty narrow range of employers as far as I can tell. I am not aware of any systematic research which assesses the quality of graduates in any methodologically rigorous way. If it exists please point me in the right direction. Also what does quality of graduates mean? I think there are a number of things going on here. I think it is pretty clear that graduates now probably have a different relationship with knowledge and a different set of skills than I had when I graduated. Things have changed. Knowledge is easily accessed. Everything can be looked up quickly. As the ever wonderful and on point Becky Huxley-Binns once said: ,It’s not that our students don’t know shit, they just know different shit’. I agree and they can do different things too. So to some extent employers need to refocus and ask whether the knowledge and skills they are saying graduates don’t have might actually be knowledge and skills that, while valued by them, are actually pretty outdated. In addition it might be worth thinking about what we could and couldn’t do and did and didn’t know when we graduated. Were we really as perfect and fully formed as we now think we were or did we maybe have some of the same weaknesses we are now so critical of? A slightly different point relates to the extent to which the skills apparently absent are actually skills that graduates should already have – so are they skills we, as legal educators should be developing or are does the responsibility lie elsewhere? And finally, what exactly should our role be here – develop skills employers want now (and if so what are they), develop skills employers will want in the future (crystal ball anyone) or develop skills that are academic in nature and enable students to, in Nussbaum’s words ‘make their minds their own’? No prizes for guessing what my answer to that would be. In short I just don’t believe our graduates are as bad as some employers on some occasions like to make out and I certainly do not believe that this is a sector wide problem. I do think this is a fascinating area for research though!
- Consumer Protection
I have not (yet) unpicked the data here or even spent a huge amount of time working through it. Clearly the regulatory objective is to ensure that solicitors are safe to do their thing. Clearly complaints are one way we can look at whether or not solicitors are doing a good job (yes I know that doing a good job and being safe to practice are not the same thing). It’s not a complete measure and it leaves much unexamined. But one of the things the SRA did say early on in developing the SQE was that it will lead to greater consumer confidence and fewer complaints.
According to the SRA itself complaints centre on lack of communication, delay and not being kept informed. They are also concentrated in areas of Family Law, Wills and Probate and Conveyancing. I’m not yet really sure what that tells us (and aware of the very limited info given here) and it is of course true (as was pointed out in today’s seminar) that the lack of complaints about knowledge or competence is because people wouldn’t necessarily know and that the practice areas may simply be about volume of work. Nonetheless though I do not see how the SQE deals with the issues most often complained about. I also find it unsurprising that the general public, when surveyed, favoured a centralised assessment, particularly given the phrasing of the question they were asked. Of course people like the idea of solicitors having gone through the same test to assure a level of competence but it rather assumes that the test does in fact do that. I suspect that if you asked the general public if they’d like to get family law advice from someone qualified as a solicitor based on a standard test that did not include any family law the answer might be different.
- Widening Access
Oh yes, the SQE will widen access to the profession. It will level the playing field. Kathryn Dutton and I have written about why that position is indefensible nonsense. (Again shout if you don’t have access). To genuinely do that the route would have to be significantly cheaper than current routes and it simply isn’t (as the SRA recently admitted) and it would have to force firms to recruit on the basis of SQE scores (and somehow control for the different opportunities to pay for and access preparatory and crammer courses). Widening access to the profession, I mean genuinely doing so, so that even inner city council estate kids with ‘just about scraped a place at a post 1992 and then ‘got it’’ kind of backgrounds can get Magic Circle firm positions; so that opportunities are genuinely equal, will only happen if recruitment practices change dramatically. ‘They’ already think they are getting the brightest and the best. They already think they are recruiting on merit. Why would they change?
- Will the SQE work
No of course not. It will not address the real or perceived weaknesses in graduates. It will not offer any more protection for those of us who need to seek legal advice or other legal services and it will not widen access to the profession. On a more cynical note of course maybe it is working just fine. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it serves an elitist profession well because it appears to level the playing field without changing anything at all. It makes entry to the profession the same for everyone without actually making it the same. It de-regulates undergraduate degrees while at the same time exerting phenomenal pressure on law schools to do certain things in certain ways (see Doug Morrison writing in the Law Teacher for a small example of this) and it promises consumer protecting and inspires confidence by promising a standard which is meaningless.
- Law School Responses
Law Schools vary in their response. Some are in panic mode feeling the need to respond but being unsure as to how. There is an element of knee-jerk and headless chicken chaos in some institution with half thought out ideas being implemented throughout curricula. There are others resigned to their perceived fate. Responding with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘Well if this is what the SRA want then we have to deliver’, there are others still who are thinking about options and waiting to see what the sector does overall and there are one or two who see the SQE as an opportunity and are embracing it. Whatever Law schools are doing the individual response to SQE is often guarded as commercially sensitive information and shared in hushed tones and whispered secrets. Quite frankly, if it wasn’t so serious it would be really funny.
I’m with Tony on this. The SQE has no implications for law schools other than the implications each law school decides it has. We do not have to react to it at all. In fact I would argue we should not react to it. Law Schools are not just for wannabe solicitors. Law Schools are really good at teaching students to do all sorts of really important things like find, read, distil and analyse huge volumes of information, reason, argue, provide evidence from a variety of sources and use it to build arguments, write, be precise and specific, problem solve, think, really think. Why would we want to stop doing that? We should keep doing exactly that through our undergraduate and post graduate academic provision. If some law schools also want to jump in and provide crammer courses for the SQE and they have the expertise and staff to do so then so be it. But there is no reason at all why the SQE should have any influence at all over our academic provision. As law schools we should be much more fierce in protecting and (re)claiming our discipline. For more on this see Luke Mason on the recent Law Teacher special issue because he is much better at articulating this than I could ever hope to be
- So where does all that leave us?
I suspect that Julie Brannan was right when, at the ALT conference at Keele University about 10 months ago, she said that the SQE was coming. It still needs final approval from the Legal Services Board but, unfortunately, I think that will come. It would be too embarrassing to pull it now. However, reviews of legal education and training come and go. The SQE won’t work and it won’t be around for long – certainly not in its proposed form, because as my host today, Richard Mullender, noted in our conversation, bad ideas are usually found out. We need to start influencing the conversation and shaping the next review. We need to make clear what helpful and effective regulation of legal education and training might look like. We need to drop egos and agendas and start talking about what the issues are, how we work together and how we start respecting each other’s expertise. Maybe the SRA has gone rogue and lost its way. Maybe. Maybe it is doing exactly what some think it should with exactly the outcomes they want. Maybe. For those of us who are deeply worried about the SQE future, we missed our chances to stop this madness but we do have the chance to shape the debate and the future beyond the madness that is SQE.
GETTING IT ALL WRONG! – The slides from the seminar if you want some silly pictures to go with the narrative
I thought I had grasped all the absurdities of the SQE, but I had not realised that family law was one of the most complained about areas. Why is it not in the SQE?? Honestly you couldn’t make it up.