exam room filled with students holding pencils

Planning for the new Solicitors Qualifying Exams (SQE) - What do law firms need to consider?

 

For those who don’t know, the SQE will replace the GDL and LPC and is a new system of exams that all solicitors must pass in order to qualify. Under the new scheme, candidates will need to:

  • have a degree in any subject (or equivalent qualification or work experience)
  • pass both stages of the SQE assessment – SQE 1 focuses on legal knowledge and SQE 2 on practical legal skills
  • have 2 years' qualifying work experience (QWE)
  • pass a character and suitability requirement by the SRA.

It is proposed that the SQE regime will not come into effect until September 2021 (possibly later).  Either way, as this is uncharted territory, law firms must consider their strategy of dealing with this change.

There are important considerations on how to recruit and train these ‘new’ solicitors but also very significantly, there needs to be a clear message to those graduates who have already secured a training contract to start before the SQE comes into effect, or indeed those currently doing the LPC or GDL, that they do not have to be affected by these changes. Instead, they will be able to choose whether to sit the SQE and do the QWE instead of completing a training contract.

Therefore, the approach to attracting the best future lawyers will inevitably change or at least be updated and the law firms that have a strategy in place will be ready and poised to beat the competition.

Recruitment and Retention Strategy

So what will law firms have to consider?

  • The transition from LPC/GDL to SQE will take some time (the SRA are proposing eleven years from when the SQE starts). Under current proposals, the solicitor qualification process will consist of a degree, the SQE and at least 24 months of qualifying work experience, not necessarily all completed at the same firm or organisation and so the traditional training contract will eventually be phased out.

  • Some firms will look at designing their own bespoke, structured SQE preparation courses for those working at the firm. And if a firm goes down this route, what will be the criteria for recruiting such candidates? Would it be the same but with the added consideration of those with a degree not in law, perhaps those with degrees in the likes of politics, business, science, construction, IT or foreign languages.
  • Some firms will offer sponsorship for the SQE and any preparation courses.This will inevitably make these firms a more attractive option, especially for those candidates who can’t afford to self-fund.The cost of the SQE is around £3,000 - £4,500, but many LPC providers will be offering preparation courses which are still likely to cost at least the same again so while the LPC won’t exist anymore, self-funding graduates will end up paying a similar amount to the existing LPC/GDL costs.

  • There will be standardised SQE performance data available on all candidates and so this will assist in recruiting external candidates who are further down the process to qualification. Such as those with qualifying experience as a paralegal or those who have taken an apprenticeship.

The Future

The legal market has been shifting away from the traditional model for some years now. We saw the first tangible change when alternative business structures (ABSs) were introduced back in 2007. This was the first move away from the traditional structure and allowed non-lawyers to own or invest in law firms for the first time, opening up what has been a closed profession. Many law firms have become more open minded about a lawyers’ background and route to qualification than ever before, with more and more firms offering alternative pathways to qualification, such as apprenticeships or the CILEx route. 

The increased awareness and implication of diversity and inclusion initiatives have played a big part in this move away from some ingrained prejudices on the background of lawyers and their education and training. It is my experience that more law firms are looking at a candidate on merit rather than what school or University they attended or qualification route they have taken.

Interview processes have also changed and we are regularly setting up ‘meetings’ and informal coffees rather than formal interviews. This has opened up more opportunities for a wider pool of candidates, especially for those who we believe would be very credible and/or impressive in person even if this is not perhaps completely obvious in their CV. From a recruiter perspective, this allows us to be more consultative with our clients.

Like most people I see the introduction of the SQE as a positive one, especially for those at NQ level.  The frustration we often experience is for those trainees who have been stuck with their seats during their training contract only to find themselves pigeon holed for the rest of their careers, sometimes in an area of law they don’t enjoy.  However, we have already seen a shift away from this problem as some firms are recognising that they can take a strong NQ, who albeit may not have undertaken the seat in the area of law they are recruiting for, but they have the right transferable skills and can prove a desire in the practice area.

This SQE is an inevitable change and arguably long overdue. It is not going to be a straightforward process, but the bottom line is that whilst there is more of a focus on diversity and inclusion, the SQE is hopefully providing an opportunity to innovate and review pathways for junior lawyers and in turn will provide law firms with a wider pool of candidates. It seems like a win-win situation for all.

Georgie trained and practiced as a solicitor before moving into recruitment in 2004. With a legal background and more than 14 years of experience specifically in legal recruitment, Georgie has excellent knowledge of the legal profession and is ideally placed to advise and assist lawyers from NQ Solicitors up to Partner level in the North West.

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