Non-graduate solicitors: The black sheep of the profession?

This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 15 March 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission

Overall, there has been very little positive feedback following the proposed introduction of this self-professed 'competency benchmark', writes Pippa Allsop

The Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) proposed 'super exam', the solicitors qualifying examination (SQE), has had a fairly rough reception over the past few months, facing widespread criticism that it is perhaps not quite so 'super' as had been hoped.

Initially, questions were raised over how successful the SQE would actually be in practice in achieving its goals of tackling the issue of diversity in, and removing barriers or improving access to, the legal profession. Many argued that the SQE would actually serve to increase the overall costs involved in becoming a solicitor as opposed to alleviating them.

More recently, a suggestion that barristers and legal executives might not have to sit the SQE if they opted to requalify as solicitors led to many accusing the SRA of sending a confused message, or worse, going back on its initial 'no exemptions' tack.

A further, and fairly brutal, nail in the coffin for the super exam was the City of London Law Society's (CLLS) recent response to the proposals, which declared that even if the SQE was to come into being, it would be 'misleading' to advise any aspiring solicitors that going to university 'is not essential for some legal career options', or put simply, expected by at least the City law firms, if not others too. This announcement clearly destabilises not only the diversity aspirations the SQE aims to embody, but further seemingly undermines any faith in the purpose of its introduction as a whole.

Overall, there has been very little positive feedback following the proposed introduction of this self-professed 'competency benchmark'. Many hard-line critics have argued that opening up access to the profession to non-graduates will devalue the profession's standing. Several legal practice course providers have now indicated one way or the other whether they will continue to offer the course, which will seemingly become redundant if and when the SQE is rolled out. The SRA will be feeding back on the consultation over the summer, so how or whether these criticisms are addressed head-on remains to be seen.

My feeling is that if it is really impossible to get past the stigma of non-graduates, (for whatever bizarre reason and even for those with improving access and addressing diversity supposedly in mind), then the SQE is likely to result in the two-tier system its critics speculate over.

It is currently difficult enough for employers to make their selection from the vast high-calibre pool of candidates, and the SQE could arguably be another tool these hard-pressed firms use to make the exercise easier, re-shifting the focus in creating a clear graduate/non-graduate distinction.

At present, the diversity issue, as a critically important one, could and should be tackled better at the university stage - thus cutting to the source - resulting in, potentially, much more widespread and therefore positive ramifications.