Reformed Solicitor Qualifications will be good for small law firms

Reformed solicitor qualifications will be good for small law firms

A single exam and the demise of the legal practice course has been criticised for 'dumbing down' legal education. But Jo-Anne Pugh sees a potential upside

Legal education for prospective solicitors is about to change radically. Within the next couple of years, the legal practice course and the graduate diploma in law will be replaced by a range of preparatory courses for the new solicitors qualification examination (SQE), which the Solicitors Regulation Authority plans to introduce.

Many smaller law firms also may not be fully aware of the criticism the change has attracted. Most large City of London firms were emphatically opposed. They feared that it was an unnecessary and “dumbed down” alternative to the LPC.

And for the most part, they remain deeply sceptical, even though the SRA has addressed some, but by no means all, of their concerns.

There are good reasons, however, why smaller law firms should view the changes as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience.

Yes, in the short term the recruitment pipeline may be disrupted because the details of the SQE – the cost or the pass mark – have yet to be fully worked out. Also, the SQE will not require students to study any of the specialisms and some of the skills law firms currently expect their entrants to be equipped with. Indeed, it is possible that SQE graduates will not have any knowledge of family, employment, immigration, commercial or intellectual property law.

In short, law firms will no longer be able to rely on the depth, breadth and quality of the knowledge and skills of graduates who self-finance their way to qualification.

That in turn means that law firms without their own graduate training programme will have to be a lot more forensic when it comes to assessing the knowledge and suitability of potential candidates and may have to put in place a great deal more remedial training to make up any shortfall.

How can this proposed system possible benefit smaller law firms? For a start, if the SQE does reduce the cost of qualification, it may entice a more diverse demographic into the profession.

But the biggest opportunities for these firms is the imminent arrival of graduate apprenticeships. Once these have been approved, even the smallest law firm will be able to offer a training programme to graduates and grow their own trainee solicitors by drawing on a significant subsidy through the government’s apprenticeship levy.

Employers with an annual wage bill of less than £3 million will be funded for 90 per cent of the cost of apprenticeship training. That means firms that previously thought training their own talent was an expensive luxury will be able to have access to funds to train their own graduate workforce, including trainee solicitors, and tailor that training to their own needs.

Doing so will require something of a cultural shift among those firms that have no tradition of hiring unqualified recruits. But the alternative is to have either very few candidates at all or insufficiently trained graduates.

Jo-Anne Pugh is the director of legal practice course programmes at BPP University Law School.