So there we have it – the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) has been pushed back to 2021. No surprises there really, we could have told the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) ages ago that there is no way they’d be ready by 2020
Anyway, people keep telling me that this is happening, that I just have to accept it and that we just have to get on with it. Well, no, no and no. While it does seem like the SQE is indeed coming, final approval for the assessment is still required from the Legal Services Board. I desperately want them to grow a backbone and declare that a qualifying examination which is likely to harm widening participation, disadvantage already disadvantaged potential solicitors further and write any ‘poor people’s law’ out of education and training for solicitors completely is just not good enough. Come on, we’re better than this utter nonsense. We can do better. We don’t need to kills aspiration and crush a generation who could make a real difference in the world.
Anyway, even if the SQE is coming, I do not have to, nor will I, just accept that. I will keep shouting about it. I will keep telling anyone who will listen (or who won’t, don’t care) why I think it’s a disaster. It promotes a skewed and, I would suggest, harmful conceptualisation of law. Luke Mason has written about this in his contribution to the forthcoming Special Issue of the Law Teacher: The International Journal of Legal Education. In the same issue Doug Morrison highlights the risk the SQE poses to creativity within the law curriculum and Elaine Hall teaches us a thing or two about robust assessment – which the SQE is not. Kathryn Dutton and I wrote about widening participation. These articles alone give you plenty of reasons to scrap the SQE as proposed and go back to the drawing board or at the very least for Law Schools to ignore it.
Let me be clear. I find this hard because I find it hard to justify why I am even remotely interested in the SQE. I don’t care about the professions, I don’t teach/train/whatever future lawyers much less solicitors. I, on a good day anyway, help people learn about law, help them to think, help them to articulate those thoughts and to write and argue and evaluate and use information to form a view and build and argument. Then I want them to go away and make the world a better place and some will do that as lawyers but most will not. So I care, not because of the impact the SQE has on the profession (although I care at the level we should all care about the lack of legal aid lawyers, solicitors who know about family law or employment law or social welfare…) but because of the impact law schools are allowing the SQE to have on the undergraduate law provision.
As a sector we have fallen for the SRA’s ploy. They want us to do their work for them. They want us to train solicitors. University Law Schools are to train their students to pass the SQE. The SRA frees us from the shackles (not that they were particularly tight!) of the Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) for their purposes (but the Bar keeps it) and says they are leaving us alone to get on with things as we think fit but at the same time clearly expect education providers to pick up the SQE preparation. Why are we doing this? Some institutions clearly see opportunities here and others feel they have no choice because they need to continue to recruit high numbers of students. Seriously? You understand that we are lying to our students by selling them SQE ready programmes, yes? If the SRA insists on the SQE, we should leave them to it. As legal educators we should stick two fingers up at them and reclaim our discipline and our expertise. We work in Higher Education. Education people. Education!
The best thing we can do for our students in Post 1992s or lower ranked Schools generally is to provide them with a strong UG education which focuses on helping them to think, articulate, write and have confidence in themselves. If others then want to think about tagging on an SQE prep course, be my guest (but don’t expect me to contribute or be nice about it). I’m not suggesting we try and be like Russel Groups institutions – we’re different, we can, should and must offer different things to our students because generally our students are different and what we do can help bridge the gap life has created for some of those coming to us. What is that difference? Well that’s for each institution to articulate but it has to be based on an understanding of who our students are and how we can help them get to where they want to be.
Anyway, I started writing this thinking about the other part of today’s headline – the cost of the SQE is likely to be between £3000 and £4500. That’s just the exam. JUST THE EXAM. For what it’s worth I think the eventual cost will be at the top end of that or higher but even if those figures are correct, add a prep course and you’re squarely within LPC fee territory. So the only way the SRA’s insistence that the SQE route would be cheaper than current routes holds true is if university law schools prepare candidates for the SQE as part of degree programmes. But the SRA aren’t expecting that. Not at all. Not one bit.
So why won’t I stop going on? Because this shit matters. It matters to my students, it matters to the legal profession, it matters to society and it says something about who we are and what we value. I hope I am wrong about the SQE, I hope that those more optimistic than me are right but I’m not prepared to sit back and let the SRA get on with it on the basis that maybe I am being a bit dramatic about all this. Are you?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority held a roundtable to discuss the latest news on the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). Conveniently it was held at Leeds Beckett University so I didn’t have to go anywhere. Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the SRA and Dr Eileen Fry, Director of the SQE at Kaplan who have been appointed to run the SQE ran the session.
I was hoping we might have a few more answers and I was hoping, against all hope I know, that things might not be as bad as I think they are. Hm. Anyway, let’s see if I can just tell you about it without actually raising my blood pressure. So Julie went first and outlined the SQE. There was nothing really new there. The usual 4 requirements come together in a puzzle, degree, SQE 1 and 2, character requirement and qualifying work experience. Julie confirmed that the requirements are not chronological. I’ve been thinking about this and while it might be true in terms of the regulation, logically they sort of are – or the logic of the SQE falls apart. If the degree or equivalent isn’t to come first then why have it at all? What would the point be of passing the SQE and doing the work experience and then do a degree… it’s odd. We also know that SQE 1 has to be taken before SQE 2. While the SRA say that the work experience can come at any point, they also say that the work experience only has to offer the opportunity to develop the skills required to be a solicitor because the SQE2 tests those skills. So logically then the chronology has to be degree, SQE1, Work experience, SQE 2 and the good character confirmation. Because if the work experience comes after SQE2 what’s the point of it given that the skills it is supposed to help develop have already been tested? I suppose what I am getting at is that the SRA talks about this being a really flexible pathway and you choose your own way through but in reality there are few pathways that make logical sense and when you start moving the order around the internal logic of the process falls apart.
So here’s where the blood pressure just won’t stay low:
Julie suggested that law firms currently use A-level grades to select candidates because they are the last reliable standardized test people take (She did say this was problematic because they were, at the time of application, old. This of course won’t change as A-levels are a way to filter out candidates and reduce the number of CVs an actual human has to look at – I have spoken several regional firms who use computer systems to filter out people so if you haven’t got three As your application will never actually be seen by a human… and if the SQE is pass/fail only then firms will still want to all back on something to rank them). So that’s a little annoying. There is the QAA Benchmark statement, we have external examiners, universities don’t just make it up as they go along, that’s before we look at the quite detailed rules about the LPC. That wasn’t the only worrying thing Julie said. She also said that the changes provided opportunities for education providers to ‘use their expertise to train their students for the SQE’. In other words the SRA is relying on university law schools to prepare students for an exam none of us really wanted in the first place.
So, about the exam itself – I was hoping for more information but really there was very little. Currently the thinking is that there will be 6 tests with 120 question each and the average time to answer the question was suggested to be about 1.8 minutes. That’s even worse than the 3 minutes previously talked about. Kaplan has paired up with Pearson to administer the test – there are lots of test centres across the country – apparently one within 40 miles of everyone. But that only applies to the written tests. The SQE2 tests will take place in far fewer centres because otherwise it’s too difficult to assure standardization and consistency.
I think the most shocking statement of the day was a response to a question about candidates with disabilities. Dr Fry said ‘You timetable for the bulk and then sort out the others’. So if you have a disability which might prevent you from taking all the tests within the usual timetable, don’t worry, Kaplan will sort you out – nothing like making you feel like the profession is welcoming to all. I do wonder whether they’ve ever heard of inclusive assessment design. It was a throwaway comment but I can’t stop thinking about it.
But anyway, it’s ok because Kaplan staff are solicitors who therefore understand legal education and practice – yes the cause and effect was implied in that way. Of course being a solicitor means that you know everything there is to know about legal education. I’m sure there are some extremely well qualified people at Kaplan but these flippant imprecise comments don’t help! Kaplan have of course been running the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTS) since 2011 and that’s part of the problem. The sample questions they shared with us on the day were clearly QLTS questions – they must have been because they had the passrate data from them. But the SQE is not the QLTS and even if it were a similar kind of thing, we seem to have forgotten that the QLTS is hugely problematic and that anecdotal evidence suggests it’s incredibly stressful and a fairly awful experience. Kaplan were keen to stress the expertise on their advisory board – drawn from people who have Bar exam experience as well as experience from medical education but again we’re not comparing like with like. I am sure there are things that can be learned from those contexts but we need to acknowledge that the SQE context is different.
Dr Fry spent some time talking about Validity, Reliability and Accuracy which is all good but the validity of the SQE seemed to completely undermined by another of her throw away remarks. If the SQE is supposed to test what solicitors need to know and be able to do on day one then we presumably need to know what solicitors do on day one – except we don’t and Dr Fry commented that one day we might do a survey to find out. So the SQE cannot test what it is supposed to test because we don’t know what solicitors do on day 1. It’s all a bit silly.
The other thing that struck me was that there is this presumption that law schools will offer preparation and that many many legal professionals still misunderstand the SQE as a new programme rather than as an assessment. This baffles me and I need to think carefully about what this means. There will of course be providers who will offer courses to prepare for the SQE. The courses will be unregulated and many won’t be that good and we will be leaving those least equipped to navigate that market to take a huge a risk.
Anyway, actually there’s nothing new! It’s the same old same old and we’re just waiting for the SRA to figure out fees, transition period, exact format of the SQE and anything else they think we might need to know. Lovely.
‘A parallel universe is a hypothetical self-contained reality co-existing with one’s own’ – says Wikipedia. Well today I found myself in one. The escalator from the ground floor to the basement of Kings Place in London is a portal between universes. That really is the only explanation for what happened today – at least the only one that makes any real sense.
I was at the Legal Cheek event: The Future of Legal Education and Training Conference. I was already irritated by the 8.30am start and the fact that all the breaks were termed ‘networking breaks’. I can’t get to London for an 8.30 networking breakfast. I got there and sat down just in time for the intro from Alex from Legal Cheek who really just plugged their exclusive survey saying that students are skeptical of the SQE and want more law tech included in their programmes. Well, from the brief bits he presented I doubt it’s that simple. Who exactly was asked what exactly and did they really understand what they were being asked? Some of the answers reported suggest that perhaps they did not. In fact a lot of what was said today suggests that the people who really ought to understand it (like the people invited to talk about it) don’t understand it. I could go through presentation by presentation and summarise it all for you but I value my mental health and my heart rate profile for today is quite erratic enough so let’s do this thematically. Here are the things that jumped out at me
- There were important voices missing. What we saw and heard today was a particular vision of law and lawyering which is not the law or the legal services that most of us (and certainly not most of the general public) engage in or come in contact with. It is rich mans law, it’s corporate, commercial and fundamentally about making already filthy rich clients more money. It is not about justice, it’s not about people, not about the social or the political, not about making the world a better place, not about harnessing the power (symbolic or otherwise) of law and lawyers to solve the big problems of the world. It was everything that makes people hate lawyers. I think it is what caused that flicker of disappointment in my mum’s face when I told her I wanted to study law and become a solicitor. It’s everything so many students think they should want even when they don’t.
- The SQE or at least the impact it is already having on universities and will certainly have on legal education is really poorly understood. Let me be clear. The SQE is an exam. It is not a programme, course or anything of that nature. It’s an exam. It therefore cannot deliver, in its own right, things like greater innovation, incorporation of tech, greater variety, cognitive diversity, any sort of diversity, thinking skills, improved written communication skills, resilience, creativity, project management and self management skills or commerciality. The only thing the SQE can do is test someones ability to pass the SQE. The preparation for the SQE might attempt to encourage some of those things but of course only if they are part of the SQE – which they are not. Many speakers made the assumption that legal knowledge would still be gained through law degrees and conversion courses – but why would that be the case? No law degree is required and many law schools will be under huge pressure to provide an SQE focused degree for fear of not recruiting students otherwise.
- There is a fundamental mismatch between what employers appear to want and say solicitors need (what they say they want – I’m not always convinced that they know what they mean when they say these things though) and what the SQE tests. There was much talk of creativity, thinking critically and differently, problem solving, managing yourself and learning how to fail and being more resilient. The SQE cannot test those things and other than for a small number of elite and very brave non-elite institutions the SQE means a move away from those things and towards learning to pass the multiple choice tests
- In spite of all the work done by the learned associations, all the SQE rhetoric is still operating on the assumption that what we do in universities is somehow not relevant to practice, can’t be quality assured and is not to be trusted. Varying pass rates, different curricula, different approaches and different assessments are presumed to mean that standards cannot be guaranteed. The problem about fitness to practice which is what regulation ought to be concerned is avoided and instead turned into a fundamental distrust of academics. But I agree with Richard Moorhead on this – the problem is more likely to be at the work place training end. The ridiculous consistency of people passing their training contracts is far more worrying than different institutions having different pass rates at LLB and LPC to me.
- There are apparently still people who think the SQE can deliver equality, diversity and inclusion benefits. There’s no evidence of this. If it reduced the cost of qualifying dramatically, maybe, but it can’t do this – you still need a degree, you’ll have to pay for the test, you’ll have to prepare for the test, you may fail the test and have to do it again… This cannot be significantly cheaper than degree plus LPC and funding option may disappear (for example the availability of loans for Masters degrees means that many LPCs are available in LLM versions so funding is available). The type of assessment has diversity implications and I just don’t see the SRA taking this seriously. They say they will fully test and analyse the statistics including by protected characteristics… but the fact still is that if you can pay to practice repeatedly then you are more likely to be successful. AND THAT IS NOT NEUTRAL
- Obviously we did not really talk about the ghettoisation of legal service provision and how the SQE might widen the gap between magic circle and high street. I can’t help thinking about the careers adviser I had at my school. When she saw my choice of A-levels and what I wanted to do with my life she said, well you won’t get into vet school – why not be a vet nurse? I said that I wanted to go to uni though and she asked me what for and why I’d want to waste my time doing a degree if I could get a job. I wonder what she will be telling kids at that school about becoming a solicitor, whether she understands the differences between solicitors and different firms and that the cheapest, most obvious route via an SQE ready degree might look great for these kids but is likely to funnel them into dead end paralegal jobs. I can’t help thinking about the girl at that same school who wanted to be a human rights lawyer but didn’t think she would be accepted anywhere because she came from the council estate down the road. Her teachers were telling her to stay local because she’d fit in better. I told her to be bold, that it would be awful at times, that it was a different world but that as much as I love working for the sort of institutions that I have worked for and now work for, they are sometimes just not good enough – she went to an elite uni- hated it but got to where she wanted to be. I can’t help thinking about the countless conversations with students about what they want to do, about repeatedly having to say – great – but you will have to do more and be better than those at Russel Group institutions, you will have to work harder and you will have to be lucky. And that’s without creating a real division in types of programmes. With the introduction of the SQE those who need the rigorous academic degrees most to help them to get to where they want to be are even less likely to access them. I feel utterly defeated by this.
- Of the lawyers or former lawyers who spoke, all totally normalised long hours. There was talk of 90 hour weeks and it was framed in terms of work ethic and being ambitious. I’m sorry but working 90 hours a week is not ambitious, it’s not having a good work ethic, it’s, pardon the language, fucking stupid! Maybe the perceived competency problem and consumer complaints are actually problems of exhaustion and not being able to function and of burn out and having been ground down. This is insanity! And no resilience is not about learning to deal with that shit. That’s not resilience. You have not failed if you can’t work those hours – you are human. Oh and maternity leave – it’s for baby things (what do I know!) and having coffee with your friends etc – it is not for re-training, setting up your business, working yourself to death… and if you take a part time job 4 days a week you don’t have the other 3 days to work on your business. Just stop. THIS IS NOT NORMAL.
- There are people who see the SQE as a massive opportunity and apparently think that it will free law schools from the shackles of regulation to be free to innovate. No no no just no. This is just so naive. The SQE will have a huge impact and makes it more difficult to innovate not easier. The SQE can actually only deliver on some of its promises if law schools take on the role of training students for it. The SRA is banking on this happening. (I say let them bank on it and screw them, let’s just collectively decide we’re not doing that and instead uphold the integrity and rigour of our programmes). So what happens to in depth teaching of legal subjects? Family Law? Social Welfare Law? International Law? Anything Socio-legal? The underlying assumption here is also really problematic. We’re not sitting around in our ivory towers happily doing what has always been done. We are constantly thinking about how we can change things, teach differently, engage our students, help them achieve those light bulb moments…
- Who chose who was invited to speak? Why weren’t the learned associations asked? Why not those who actually research these issues? With one or two notable exceptions is was an impressive line up of non-experts, people sort of wheeled out as representing something when in fact legal services weren’t represented well, law schools weren’t and in spite of Alex’s insistence that the student voice was really important to Legal Cheek there wasn’t a single student speaker.
I could probably go on and on and on but this gives you a flavour. I’m still a bit confused by it all. And I’m exhausted from trying to understand, from trying to work out what it is I’m missing, from forcing myself to have the confidence to know I’m right on this because the thing that perhaps took me by surprise the most is how easily my confidence in what I know and believe can be rocked by a bunch of men in suits spouting utter nonsense. After all, what could a girl from a small town in West Yorkshire possibly know about this? It took a two mile people and cyclist dodging run to clear my head and restore some sanity.
This conversation is going to continue and I’ll be back to participate but for now please do chat amongst yourselves while I re-charge.