I’d like to start off by introducing myself so you can understand my background and the relevance I have to the blog you are about to read. My name is Edward Armitage and at Cooper Fitch I am a Legal Recruitment Consultant specialising in Private Practice. I have been connected to the legal industry in both the UK and Middle East since 2013, I studied Law at Middlesex University and studied the Legal Practice Course at BPP University in London. Throughout the course of this blog I am going to be discussing the newly introduced Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) and the impact it may have on the legal profession and legal recruitment. I will be highlighting some of the key aspects of the SQE and who will be able to benefit from its inception as well as some of the potential obstacles it may face.
Have you ever wanted to work in law but have felt it is too late in your career or you can’t because your degree is not relevant? Well thanks to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) who has come to shake up the industry, now all aspiring solicitors can qualify in England and Wales no matter what degree they hold. As of the 1st September 2021 the SQE has become the new standardised assessment to qualify as a solicitor meaning for those who start a law or non law degree from this date, the SQE will be the centralised route to qualification. In November this year more than a thousand people will take the first ever SQE assessment. Prior to the SQE inception, the traditional way to qualify as a solicitor was to undergo the Legal Practice Course (LPC) which was introduced in 1993 and has been a compulsory requirement for hopeful solicitors before they undergo a two year training contract. The LPC was introduced to stimulate competition by encouraging more educational institutions to offer the LPC and allow for more students to take part. However, only around one in five British universities actually offer the LPC, with BPP University and University of Law dominating 80% of the market providers.
What does this mean for aspiring solicitors?
With the introduction of the SQE, the Legal Practice Course will undergo a gradual phasing out period lasting until 2032, this means both of these courses will still be available to take as part of the qualification route for students who began the LPC prior to 1st September 2021. The SQE has been split into two stages: SQE1 and SQE2, candidates will only be allowed three attempts at each stage and both stages must be passed within six years. In addition to sitting SQE 1 & 2, aspiring solicitors will have to complete two years of “qualifying work experience” (QWE) replacing the traditional two year training contract or period of recognised training which has been designed to be more flexible than a training contract, in that trainees can complete their on the job training at up to four law firms as opposed to just one. The new system has been created to encourage an integrated approach to training that will bring greater flexibility to trainees allowing a combination of practical and vocational study. The effect of the introduction of the SQE on both firms and individuals is going to create some murky waters for quite some time.
Weighing up the pros and cons
A greater opportunity has however presented itself with the SQE for individuals who want to have a career in the law. Under the old system, students must have completed a law degree (LLB) or a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before undertaking the Legal Practice Course. Now, under the SQE, non-law graduates can enrol in the SQE1 assessment having no prior law experience however, the real question is whether the SQE is going to increase opportunities for individuals to work in the law or not.
The traditional two year training contract has made it difficult for trainees to jump ship between law firms until they have qualified, therefore once they have started their training contract they are essentially locked in for two years. Further, where financial support has been given for the LPC/GDL courses, a certain degree of loyalty is to be expected from the firm. The SQE will allow more flexibility for employers and employees, as previously mentioned, qualifying work experience can be achieved at up to four organisations and in multiple areas of the law, allowing candidates to split their time at private practice firms or within in-house industry teams in positions of their choice such as Paralegals or Legal Assistants. This enhanced flexibility could however potentially come at the cost of loyalty from both sides. Firms will be used to having trainees for 2 years across four seats in the firm, removing this certainty of staff could create a mistrust when hiring trainees if firms believe they will be losing them to other firms or industries after a relatively short period of time. The flexibility presented by the SQE does however have the ability to create more short-term opportunities, which could benefit both sides. Firms who have larger spikes or fluctuations in work suitable for junior lawyers could offer short fixed term contracts of 6-12 months by targeting individuals who are particularly interested in that practice area, or who meet specific requirements like fluency in languages or knowledge of the client’s industry. For trainees, this also comes as an advantage as those who are unhappy with their current employer, due to cultural environment, remuneration or type of client work, can choose to find a new employer without risking qualification and those who want to relocate geographically will also see the SQE/QWE as an advantage. Here in the UAE we could see an increase in candidates looking to gain their qualifying experience overseas whereas before some training contracts would only offer one to two seats maximum limiting the number of trainees being able to go overseas.
Given the current long term commitment with current training contracts, plus the high financial and time costs to training, firms are more likely to under-recruit than over; however the new model could allow firms to top up their trainee intakes more easily especially with candidates from overseas as and when client demand requires it. In turn, this will present more opportunities to gain QWE, even if they are much shorter in length.
How will the SQE impact legal recruitment?
From a legal recruitment perspective which is what I assume you have been waiting for me to delve into, the SQE will present a challenge to law firms when looking at potential candidates. On one side you have the well trodden path of a qualifying law degree followed by the Legal Practice Course and finally a training contract, it is a very clear and consistent path which the majority of firm’s employees have also followed. Firms may continue to favour candidates who have followed this route as opposed to those who have completed the SQE purely on the basis that they have also been tested under a system that is familiar to them. There is a danger that the SQE could lead to a “two tier” system among candidates, depending on whether they opted for the new SQE path or the tried and tested LPC route. A way of tackling this is to be upfront with candidates and firms to be clear on their preference of provider and qualification route which will also create an opportunity for recruiters to become the first line of defence for firms and candidates alike to ensure the candidates with the desired training and qualification are matched to the right opportunities. This however may limit some candidates’ preferred choice in terms of which firm they want to work at. It will take some time before we see changes from a legal recruitment perspective as the SQE has only been in place for 2 months however when it comes to matching a suitable candidate for a role at a firm, there are typical skills and academic qualifications we look for, alongside candidate experience and with the possibility of law firms looking for one specific qualification, there could be a number of newly qualified professionals looking for work.
As firms in the Middle East bounce back from hiring freezes and overall, a difficult 2 years from the effects of COVID-19, we are seeing a surge in recruitment and in particular corporate and commercial lawyers being the most highly sought after. Major events such as Dubai Expo, the Qatar market opening and Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia are getting the cogs of recruitment turning and will be a key driver in the market. The SQE will add fresh candidates to that market with different backgrounds which they will be able to bring to the industry however it will be important that SQE candidates have some relevant and sufficient “qualifying” experience to be able to see a career in law. Overall, law firms seem, as they often do, to be waiting for more concrete evidence before committing to the SQE. Whilst the SQE offers greater flexibility and opportunity to careers in the law, it remains to be seen if the conversion to a qualified solicitor will be any more diverse than the LPC. Innovation and disruption brings opportunities and the SRA need to work closely with the legal profession and academic community to ensure the right outcome for the future of legal education and training.
I hope you found my blog insightful and if you would like to share your thoughts on this topic or require my expertise please get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org
Meet the expert
Representing the firm since 2021
Recruitment, executive search
Partners & teams, Senior Associates, Associates & Newly qualified
Legal, Private Practice
Edward joined Cooper Fitch in 2021 after being connected to the Legal Industry in both the UK and Middle East since 2013. Prior to his successful career Edward Studied Law at Middlesex University where he gained a first class honours degree before enrolling in a Legal Practice Course at BPP University of Law in London.
Edward has valuable experience working in the legal industry in both In House and Private Practice positions. He has worked with ‘Magic Circle’ and Boutique firms alike and knows the requirements for each in order to be successful, understanding the needs of the firm and candidates respectively.
Edwards hands-on experience of working in law firms, from legal support roles to partner roles has provided him with a personal approach to identifying roles and candidates collectively as well as a very good understanding of the culture and trends that influence the UAE business world. Ed has been exposed to the volatile nature of the legal industry in both the UAE and the UK and can provide valuable information to help best navigate the Law and how to succeed.