Diversity in the legal profession: Will SQE help or hinder?

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Diversity and social mobility or indeed the lack of it have been a central issue that the legal profession has been grappling with for as long as I can remember. Traditionally dominated by privileged men who were once infamously labelled as ‘white, male and stale’ and who no longer accurately reflect today’s multi-cultural society, barristers’ chambers and law firms alike are encountering ever-increasing pressures to make more of a concerted effort to attract and retain graduates from both BAME and lower socio-economic backgrounds.

To this end, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has also been trying to play its part. Enter stage, the Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE). For those of you who aren’t already familiar with it, the SQE is a centralised exam that’s set to transform how aspiring lawyers gain entry to the hugely competitive legal profession. Further information on the SQE, which is expected to be officially introduced in September 2021, can be found in one of my previous blogs.

This radically different new route to qualification, which has also attracted its own fair share of controversy (including ironically in the context of diversity), will eventually result in the abolition of both the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and training contract and replace them with a pathway that, according to the SRA, puts flexibility and transparency at the forefront. In theory, this will principally be achieved by enhancing competition amongst course providers whilst maintaining rigorous standards, and in turn offering more options to would-be solicitors.

The LPC gamble vs SQE flexibility

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, a greater degree of choice combined with a less rigid route to qualification is a welcome move, especially for self-funding LPC hopefuls. Such individuals, who interestingly make up a significant majority of LPC students, often tell me about the agony of overcoming the almost impossible dilemma of whether to risk enrolling on a programme costing as much as £17,300 with no guarantee of securing a training contract off the back of it. In addition to this, they may also have already amassed thousands of pounds in debt to pay for their undergrad course fees and to cover living expenses.

The SQE aims to do away with this so-called ‘LPC gamble’ because under the new system aspiring lawyers can start gaining the mandatory two years’ full-time Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) that will replace the training contract as early as during their undergrad studies and ‘bank’ it. Designed to be as flexible as possible, aspiring lawyers can obtain QWE in one block with a single employer or in stages with up to four different organisations. Whilst from an employer’s perspective, such flexibility is likely to provide opportunities for ‘smaller’ firms to offer placements where – because of their size and resources – this might not currently be possible. That means a potential boost in the number of organisations that are able to offer QWE.

Incidentally, QWE includes placements during a law degree; working in a law clinic; or voluntary work in a charitable organisation as well as paid paralegal roles.

In stark contrast, it is currently only possible to start a training contract after successfully completing the LPC, which I believe has had dire consequences with regards to diversity in the legal sector and in turn has simply exacerbated the LPC gamble.

Firstly, owing to the volume of students graduating from the compulsory post-graduate course consistently outstripping the number of available training contract places, a perennial and unhelpful bottleneck has emerged.

Secondly, whether or not it’s their preferred area of law and in order to shield themselves from the eyewatering cost of the LPC, students understandably gravitate towards larger commercial firms that typically cover course fees. That’s precisely the single biggest reason why I opted to train as a City lawyer.

This puts unnecessary and undue pressure on students who are more likely to flourish in small to medium sized law firms to pursue options that aren’t right for them. Or alternatively get into debt. Either way, it appears to be a lose-lose situation, particularly because it is more likely to be students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who experience this kind of conflict.

Indeed, I’m struggling to think of any other profession where candidates who don’t have the option of turning to the bank of Mum and Dad being precluded from progressing professionally without the willingness to take on significant levels of debt.

Thirdly, as well as many students being unable to secure training contracts despite multiple rounds of applications, the current system also presents certain challenges with regard to standards – that’s simply because there is no standardisation in the way training contracts are signed-off (i.e. qualification is automatic). From experience, this is another area where poorer or BAME students may well be more adversely affected due to many typically training with smaller and potentially less reputable firms that can offer hugely varied training.

Indeed, much of the above is echoed in an independent report published in July 2020 by not-for-profit outfit the Bridge Group, which found that, though there is no silver bullet to address diversity in the legal profession, the SQE has a powerful potential to level the playing field for candidates – assessing them in a standardised and comparable way, regardless of entry route and prior access to opportunities.

The group’s chief executive said: “The current system is comparably fragmented and expensive. The SQE could reform the training market and give people more choice.”

Whilst in response to the Bridge Report, SRA chief executive Paul Philip noted: “We know we don’t have all the answers and that the SQE cannot on its own resolve all the diversity issues that the sector faces. This is a shared challenge.”

Does the SQE favour white candidates?

One of the biggest criticisms levelled against the SQE relates to findings that during two pilots, white candidates generally performed better than their BAME counterparts in assessments of Functioning Legal Knowledge and particularly in the skills tests of the SQE initially proposed for SQE1.

An updated diversity and inclusion risk assessment, however, did eventually conclude that there’s “no evidence that any of these assessment methods used in the SQE are intrinsically biased or that the outcomes are worse than those seen in the current LPC system”.

Meanwhile, reassuringly the Bridge Report further highlights the fairness of the SQE design. It supports:

  • the use of multiple questions in SQE1 are as objective an evaluation methodology as possible and;
  • the decision for a uniform approach for the SQE2 assessment, with potentially greater diversity benefits than the alternative of giving candidates options.

More to be done beyond the SQE

As has already been highlighted by some stakeholders, I’m acutely aware of the two-tier system that continues to prevail in the legal sector and the resulting prejudice faced by some candidates who have taken non-commercial pathways to admission or qualified via alternative means. It’s therefore vitally important that this prejudice is tackled head-on, particularly since candidates progressing via these routes are more likely to come from less privileged backgrounds.

I also support the findings of the Bridge Group’s report that the SQE could help to address diversity issues in the legal profession. But as highlighted by the report, sufficient progress will only be made if employers and indeed traditional LPC providers buy-into this new way of qualifying. Furthermore, I also believe it’s particularly important for elite City outfits to continue to expand the range of universities they recruit from.

Meanwhile, all stakeholders should do their part to encourage students to trust their instincts and be true to their values. That means helping students, who are still trying to get their heads around the multiple routes to qualification that are now available, to properly understand and evaluate the different options. In doing so, they should aim not to make them feel pressurised into only applying to leading law firms. Because, having felt that pressure myself, I know how it’s not always conducive to making appropriate choices.

After all, every aspiring lawyer should be free to pursue a career path they truly believe is right for them. And if they choose to train as a solicitor specialising in criminal or family law that doesn’t mean they are lesser lawyers.

Indeed, if the SQE in any way helps to deconstruct this unhelpful two-tier system then I personally believe we’ll have a much better shot at increasing diversity in the legal profession. From my perspective I don’t think one half of the profession should be viewed as being better than the other – they’re simply different facets of the same profession but serving different clients, which in turn makes them suitable for different candidates.

Husnara Begum is a former lawyer-turned-legal journalist-turned career coach. She is the associate editor of careers & lifestyle website “CheekyLittleCareers.com” and also runs regular careers clinics for the Law Society. Through her work Husnara has gained extensive knowledge and insights into the challenges faced by aspiring solicitors when trying to secure training contracts.

BARBRI’s team would be happy to assist you with discussing your individual options and concerns about qualifying through the SQE. Feel free to book a time with us here.

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