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 am really excited that my institution is hosting a one day event next June (25th June) to celebrate (if that’s the right word? Maybe ‘mark’ is better) 5 years since the publication of the Legal Education and Training Review. It’s going to be a great event. We already have representatives from the professional bodies as well as most of the original research team confirmed as speakers. In addition Professor Anthony Bradney has agreed to give the closing keynote. I can’t wait. The call for papers is ready but of course all distribution and membership lists have closed down for the Christmas break, getting anything on the Law school website might not happen until January either and getting the call out there is just really difficult at this time of year.
We are however working to relatively tight deadlines with abstracts due by the 29th January and this might be the one week where academics have just that little bit of time to think about abstracts and papers (who am I kidding, most of us are too tired to function!). So here it is:
And for those of you who (like me) find clicking on a link too much like hard work as you reach for another mince pie, here’s what you need to know:
We now invite submission of abstracts for papers which explore any aspect of the LETR and subsequent developments. Topics might include but are not limited to
- Who are tomorrow’s lawyers and who should be educating/training them?
- What are Law Degrees for?
- Routes to qualification for solicitors, barristers and legal executives
- Education and training for paralegals
- The value of a liberal legal education
- The impact of LETR and subsequent developments on specific substantive areas
- Impact of the LETR and subsequent developments on Law Schools
- International comparisons
- The Futures of Legal Education and Training
Please submit your abstract of no more than 500 words to Dr Jessica Guth by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) stating 3-5 keywords which will help us group related papers together. The deadline for submission is 5pm on Monday 29th January 2018. We will make decisions on the abstracts and put together a preliminary programme by Friday 9th February.
It’s going to be a great day and I look forward to seeing your abstracts. If you want to come but don’t want to present anything, booking for the event will open in February and we will keep the cost of the event to a minimum. Watch this space!
Those of you who know me will know that I see UG law degrees as liberal degrees which are loosely linked to the legal professions if indeed they must be linked to them at all. As such my concern about the Legal Education and Training Review were that it would recommend greater regulation of undergraduate degrees or the academic stage generally. I was worried about the introduction of greater links between law degrees, vocational training and professional practice as well as about greater prescription of content for law degrees. Now that the LETR has reported and I am mulling over the 300+ pages and reflecting on the report as well as the other documents produced by the review, I thought it may be worth sharing some initial thoughts.
My initial reaction was that there was very little in the report concerning the education part and I thought that was a good thing. I shared the view of many that there really wasn’t much new here and that we seems to have spent a lot of money and waited a long time to have a report which says almost nothing new. However, I have let things sink in a little (and there is more of that to be done) and like some I have changed my mind a little. Even though the report conceded that UG law degrees are generally outside the remit of the review other than when directly impact on the provision of legal services, there are elements of the report which, if taken up by the regulators have significant potential to change law degrees, even if regulation remains light touch.
The Foundations Subjects (See Recommendation 10)
The report suggests there is little appetite for change here and that the idea of foundation subjects is likely to stay. However it also questions whether the balance is correct, whether the rights things are core and whether there should be more fluidity and flexibly as well as more prescription. This does not seem to make sense, can we have flexibility and fluidity and prescription? Well maybe, you could prescribe topics and skills to be covered without specifying modules for example. What concerns me more here is the ‘who decides?’ question. If the foundations are to be revamped, who does the revamping? This is not a level playing field and if, as could easily happen, the agenda is dictated by magic circle law firms, we might end up with something which has a core which is biased in favour of corporate commercial interests but offers little to high street practice never mind those graduates who do not wish to go into the professions. There are already arguments about what is core and what should be core and it would do all of us no harm to remember that what we think is interesting and important is not necessarily core. The LETR report opens the door for a whole scale reform of the foundation subjects, which I don’t really have a problem with, it is what comes next that worries me!
Inclusion of writing/communication and research skills (See Recommendation 6 and 11)
The comments in the report about writing skills and research skills I found a little tricky. On the one hand I sympathise. I teach legal skills and I mark a lot of work produced by students who are lacking in both these areas. On the other hand I was irritated, I teach both writing and research skills. Law Schools are doing this, but perhaps we need to do it more explicitly. On balance I think I therefore welcome the recommendation that:
There should be a distinct assessment of legal research, writing and critical thinking skills at level 5 or above in the Qualifying Law Degree and in the Graduate Diploma in Law. Educational providers should retain discretion in setting the context and parameters of the task, provided that it is sufficiently substantial to give students a reasonable but challenging opportunity to demonstrate their competence. (Recommendation 11)
However, I am also keenly aware that most of the evidence about writing skills etc is anecdotal and I really do think it would be useful to conduct research on students’ skills base to help us better understand where the weaknesses are.
Ethics (See Recommendation 6)
I have always struggled with the debate around the inclusion of ethics in UG law degrees, not because I don’t think ethics should be taught but rather because I don’t think it is possible to teach law without ethics or values. Law is inherently value laden and to me very closely linked to ethics. However, teaching professional ethics as applied to the legal professions has, in my mind, no place in the UG law curriculum. Teaching ethics and values generally definitely has.
Liberal law degrees generally
The report seems to recognise that law degrees are academic degrees and that they should not be vocational. I was interested to see that the Bar are most in favour of liberal degrees. It is also of course worth noting that the responses to the question of whether law degrees should be liberal degrees or more vocationally focused are from people in the professions. I wonder how the pattern of responses would change if people who have law degrees but work in other areas were asked the same question… I digress. So coming from someone who believes in the liberal law degree, the LETR report contains some relevant stuff, whether it is stuff to be concerned about or stuff to celebrate or stuff to just ignore will become clearer in time. The LETR is just the starting point, it’s what comes next that has the potential to change things and that I am a little bit worried about.
Watch this space for more on the issues as I reflect further on the issues raised in the report.