When a university Head of Law sits the SQE

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Amir Paz-Fuchs may well be the first and only head of law to have completed the SQE himself. Matthew Skelding, Business Development Manager at BARBRI, caught up with Amir, the Head of the School of Law at Sussex University and a professor of Law and Social Justice, who shared his first-hand insights into the SQE, BARBRI’s pedagogy, and rethinking the traditional university educational approach. 

Matthew Skelding: Could you tell me a bit about yourself and how you became the head of law at Sussex University? 

Amir Paz-Fuchs: Oh, it’s quite a journey. I did my first degree in Israel, did my PhD in Law in Oxford, went back to Israel to teach, was involved in various human rights organisations and with all the background etc it became quite challenging. That’s a very short version of the story! I then had a research position in Oxford. We came here, decided that we liked it here on this island, and then a lecturer job came up at Sussex. I started at the bottom of the scale and then slowly but surely ended up where I am now.  

You were there from the start of the BARBRI and Sussex journey, can I ask why Sussex chose BARBRI as their SQE partner? 

It’s a good question. I was involved there on the periphery – my first role was as Employability Lead and as I teach Employment Law, it’s always been an interest of mine. But my colleagues were more closely involved in the negotiations, and what I kept hearing second-hand was that it was just good chemistry.  

Obviously, before you dive into the material, you don’t really have an insight into what one provider offers compared to another. So at that stage it was more about the relationship, the flexibility, the willingness to understand what our values and priorities are, and that’s what determined that we felt really, really comfortable working with BARBRI. 

Could you elaborate slightly on those values from Sussex that you wanted to ensure were in line with BARBRI’s? 

Sure. There is overlap in that we want our students to have the best chances in terms of employability – as does BARBRI, obviously, as a provider. There’s also the academic and critical side in that we want to give students a humanistic education that includes critical thinking.  

And if you’re very orientated towards employability in the job market, sometimes you could lose that, but we continually try to square that circle. And I think BARBRI understands that and seeks to complement it. So we work together. We value authentic teaching, authentic assessment… which is a fancy way of saying “real-life or outward-looking teaching”, assessment that is connected to the employability market. Working with BARBRI as professionals in that field, we allow them to facilitate that and it makes that move much easier. 

Switching back to yourself, what made you, as a law professional and educator of many years, want to go and do your own SQE journey and qualify as a solicitor? 

I think as is often the case with such a quite significant and time- and resource-intensive move, it’s more than one reason – because one reason usually isn’t enough. 

As it so happened, I had a light teaching load one term and I thought there’s more I could do with my time. That probably was a mistake because other teaching terms followed and they weren’t that easy! 

There were two other main factors. One is that as I came to Sussex, I quickly started to volunteer at Citizen’s Advice as an employment specialist. And I really, truly enjoyed that kind of interacting with clients, helping out people in the community, and also bringing that client experience and examples back into the classroom. And that got me thinking that practising law is a part of the legal sphere that I actually enjoy and I don’t want to get too disconnected from it, it’s important.   

And the second, quite closely related fact is that I set up the law clinic at Sussex about 6 to 7 years ago, and became the director of the clinics and started to co-author a textbook on clinical legal education (CLE) – it would be the first textbook on CLE, actually. And in that capacity, I spoke to quite a few colleagues, who are directors of clinics elsewhere – quite a few of them are legally trained and active solicitors or barristers. And I thought that qualifying just made sense and conversations with them suggested to me that we as academics are missing out on something. Or maybe the positive spin would be: you benefit a great deal if you can bring to the clinics some sort of knowledge and understanding of what happens in the professional realm. 

Would you be able to give us some overall learning experiences from the SQE? Such as what challenges you have had to overcome?  

I’m happy also to talk about some of my insights in terms of benefits. But if you want to focus initially on the challenges, I think the main challenge was time.  

I mentioned that I started it during an easy term – but then I had other terms. And combining studying with full-time work – in my case, kids too – was obviously a challenge. I spent quite a bit of time feeling sorry for myself, thinking I’m the only one out there who’s doing this alongside full-time work. But then we had a group chat among people taking part in the course, and I realised that that’s not the case: quite a few people (notwithstanding the fact that they were a bit younger than I am), were also actually full-on, full time. Very, very few people took a significant gap or even went part time. So in that sense, my experience wasn’t different and we were all facing the same challenges.  

And that challenge, to put it bluntly, is you finish a day of, you know, 5:00pm and then you start your second shift. Or the weekends: those long-awaited weekends after the end of a work week when you could just unwind and have a drink or five! [laughs] That’s probably less possible and you need to dedicate that time to catch up with all those things that you’d missed. 

And this brings me to how the BARBRI course schedule, the system is really, really helpful.  

You know exactly where you are. I’ve spoken to some other students, who are on courses with other providers (unnamed!) and one of the things that struck me time and time again – and I’m not saying this just because I’m talking to you – was that they felt that they lacked structure. They’d come to me because I kept saying I went through the SQE, if you want to talk about the SQE, come see me. And they’d go, “Okay, so I’m not sure if I’m doing well, I’m not sure where I am,” etc.  

And with BARBRI, to an extent, their structure could be seen as “limiting” or “onerous” or “putting more stress on you”. But you can also say okay, if you look towards the end of the plan, there’s always two or three weeks buffered in so you can catch up. The BARBRI team keeps telling you that there’s a broad plan, and if you manage to stick to the plan and say, okay, this week I haven’t had the chance to work as much as I wanted to, then I’ll figure it in over the next week or weekend and catch up. You always know where you are. 

It gives that positive amount of structure and discipline. You have to be self-disciplined, but there’s also the external discipline that really, really helps.  

In addition to that, there’s also, I think, one of the most astounding and outstanding elements: the BARBRI course structure has massive pedagogical value.  

So I’m writing a book on clinical education, I’m interested in legal education, I’m interested in education more broadly, techniques of education, what happens in the classroom and what’s effective, and all the rest.  

So the basic structure that one can expect is… say you do Tort law. You start with Negligence, do the lecture, the mock, the reading lecture, the reading, the multiple-choice questions (MCQs) and then the journal quiz. And then you move on to Trespass… etc. And you do the same thing over and over again. You take notes, which takes time, that’s kind of the classic. That’s how we teach. That’s how everyone teaches, so far as we know, in law school. 

With BARBRI, that structure doesn’t exist. This is the first time that I’ve come across a system where it’s broken down. And it’s strange that this is the first time because it actually makes sense and is not too difficult to implement. Take Contract Law. You start with Offer and Acceptance, you do the video and then move on to another topic – Representation – and you do that video, right? And then you go back to Offer and Acceptance, do the reading, and then move on to Misrepresentation, a video and the reading on that… and then you’re back to Offer and Acceptance and you do the MCQs – in a kind of spiral effect. 

Now, this structure wasn’t a surprise because BARBRI made a big point of saying: we looked into this – we assessed it, we surveyed it, we studied it – and this is the most effective way of studying. Trust us. We know what we’re talking about. You guys know that you have a system here that works. 

But it was only when I studied in that way that I realised how effective that is. As it so happens, my son is doing an A-levels in Psychology and he was like, yeah, obviously, there’s a term for that – spaced repetition. We all know this in terms of studies and education and psychology and all the rest. But very, very few people teach in that way. 

And it was so effective because the amount of material is just unbelievably massive. If you do the topics sequentially, you start off on your 3- or 4-month journey but by the time you’re in your 10th or 15th topic, you’ve forgotten the first one. But here you don’t do them sequentially, it’s constantly spiralling and reminding you.  

And then with the tests… first you’re tested on one topic, then you’re tested on three topics, then on five topics, etc. That incremental growth is so simplistically genius or geniusly simplistic! It works so, so, so well that I want to embed it into our own teaching. Why can’t we teach Contract Law or Tort in that fashion?  

So that, for me, was the stand-out element in the way BARBRI structures and teaches the programme. I value that a great deal because it would have been very difficult to get through the material otherwise.  

You touch on some really good points there. With the SQE1 prep course you’re looking at about 360 hours of study, and as you say, you have to trust the process and you’ll realise that the spaced repetition – even though it’s something that a lot of people may not have come across before – does actually work.  

Moving a bit deeper into the learning management system, how did you find our materials and what did you find the most useful when using them? Was it the video lectures, the question learning sets, our learning team faculty themselves? Or was it the workshops preparing you for the style of examine itself? 

I should say that different people will find different things helpful, right? I’m generally a good learner, I think I managed digesting the material myself. So for me it was less about the group dynamics. 

The videos offer a really good overview. I learned from my son to watch it times one-and-a-half – I didn’t realise that’s a thing that people do… and he jokes because in the meantime he watches it times three! Anyway, the BARBRI videos set the platform, so when you come into the reading, you know what you are about to experience and it makes the digestion of more detail that much easier.  

And then of course you come to the MCQs – quite often there are things that you thought you’d understood, but it’s only when you get to the MCQs or the quizzes that you realise, oh, actually I don’t understand, these two answers look exactly the same to me, I thought both of them were right. And the MCQs have the answer – not only why B is the right answer, but also why A and C are not the right answers, which is really helpful and important.  

And how did you manage to balance your studies with full-time employment? What was your routine, so to speak? 

You have to mentally allocate time. My workday could have continued until, say, 6pm on a regular workday, but I had to tell myself to stop at 4pm. You just have to slot in the time, otherwise you start to accumulate debts, as it were, gaps.  

With the SQE1, that time was first thing in the morning. I had more control of my day and I preferred to wake up, get into the office, cram for a couple of hours, and know that it’s out of the way, then start my day. 

By the time the SQE2 came along, I was already head of department and my time was a bit more out of my hands. My workday started with early meetings. That meant I had to be really strict because there were days when the day itself finished at 7pm.  

It’s a fine balance between giving up and pushing yourself a tiny bit and saying, oh, you know what, I’m going to go get a cup of tea. Relax a bit, unwind, do your thing. Go for a run, go for a walk, and then come back. Create that buffer between your workday and your second shift. 

But some days I was shattered. And there’s no point in studying if you’re already exhausted and just going through the motions, gazing through the textbook and you’re getting nothing from it. It’s just a waste of a couple hours. Rather go and do something you enjoy. 

So it’s finding that balance, it’s know thyself. Different people have different capacities, different systems and they focus better at different times of the day. But it is important to slot that time in.  

Also, the classic cliche is true in this case: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There will be days that it doesn’t work. There’s no point in cramming for four or five hours one day, and you’re hating it and then you’re not doing any work for the rest of the week. Pace yourself, it’s important. 

Do you mind going into a bit more detail about the challenges between the SQE1 and SQE2 and how you prepared differently or advise your students to prepare? 

Yep, happy to. I think the main challenge is the balance between the skill and the law, which wasn’t an issue in SQE1 obviously because that’s just about functional legal knowledge (FLK). With the SQE2 you bring in the skills factor.  

First of all, learning skills is not an obvious thing. How do you learn how to interview? How do you learn how to do advocacy properly? Are some people just not good at these things, or can you actually get better? Hopefully people who are thinking about the law start from a decent place in terms of their ability because they’re interested in it. But there’s always a method in the madness. And there are things that you don’t know you can do better, but you can, actually. Even if you’re a people’s person and you have decent capacity to talk to people, there’s a way of constructing a good interview or talking to a judge. 

That’s something that we don’t teach enough in law school. We’re doing more and more, especially at Sussex. And we’re getting better and better at it. But traditionally, law schools, when I was a law student, we didn’t do that at all, right? We just did the essays, and you have two weeks to write it. But legal research and legal writing is very different from writing an essay. And changing those habits and learning to write differently, read differently, skim through legal research – because you have that pile of material and you have 45 minutes – that’s very different. So all of those things are challenges in and of themselves. 

But on top of that, there’s something I struggled with and it’s literally this great unknown: how much law do we need to show that we know for the SQE2 exam?  

With the SQE2 you can’t test someone’s ability to interview, or to do advocacy, without them talking about something of substance and not getting the law wrong. But at what level do you need to know the law to speak or do legal research writing in a way that’s positive and constructive?  

And there’s little BARBRI could say – and having completed it myself, that I can say – that will give really concrete signposts to say, now this is too detailed, you don’t need to answer in that detail. Or this you actually need to know, this is important, you can’t go into an advocacy setting without knowing that. 

So how did BARBRI’s SQE2 course help combat those challenges and get you through that process? 

I think a lot of it was just relaxing. Extrapolating from particular case examples until you get a general feel of it. It’s doing more and more (and more and more) examples, and the examples start to repeat themselves in the level of detail required. In the SQE2 prep course I joined quite a bit of the group sessions, and you saw what other people were asking and the learning coach’s responses, eg you won’t be expected to know that. And the more you sit on those kind of things, the more you start to get a feel.  

And then with the BARBRI material. When you look and say okay, these are the type of questions that you could be assessed on with respect to Criminal Advocacy, those examples start to repeat themselves. 

I’m now recalling actually – with a bit of dread – how horrible that feeling is at the start, because you’re dealing with both the advocacy and the test for, say, bail at the same time. But you just keep going through it, you master them pretty much at the same time. You need to know the tests because you need to argue them: First, Your Honour, I’m going to argue that, then second, third, in summary…. And you also need to know how to argue, and you’re coming at it at the same time. In the first month, everyone’s really kind of falling off a cliff, but you just waddle a bit and then suddenly, a month or two in, you’re swimming.  

Thank you. And this will be the final question. What are some quick-fire top tips that you’d give to either students or practitioners who are interested in preparing for the SQE examinations? 

I’ll make you happy by saying choose your provider carefully! It is important. It is a degree of self-discipline – no-one can do the work for you – but a good provider will guide you through it. 

And by way of summary, pace yourself. Make sure that even if you choose a provider that doesn’t have a concretely planned structure that you create the plan for yourself. 

And thirdly, it will seem daunting at the start because the volume of material is overwhelming, but the degree of success, especially with those who went through the system with good providers, is quite high. If you’ve gotten to this stage, you can probably manage it. You’ve managed things of a similar scale and probably harder. It’s just a different type of learning. 

It’s like learning a language when at first you just don’t understand anything that’s going on. But then as you start to master it, it’s a bit smoother. If you go through the process and you don’t neglect it but treat it as a marathon, not a sprint, you’ll be in a good place.  

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