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The route to becoming a solicitor is changing. Currently being phased in is the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), the new centralised way to train as a solicitor in England and Wales.

A few weeks ago BARBRI, a legal training provider hosted a webinar to discuss what the new SQE is, the implications and viewpoint of the in-house legal community.

While legacy courses will continue for people who began their training in 2021, the SQE is the long-term replacement for:

  • GDL – Graduate Diploma in Law;
  • LPC – Law Practice Course; and
  • QLTS - Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme

What is the SQE?

Victoria Cromwell, Head of New Business and Account Management, BARBRI

The SQE was introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in 2021 to centralise the qualification process for solicitors. Comprising two assessments, the SQE forms part of a new four-stage process for aspiring solicitors. The four stages are:

  1. Attaining a degree, or equivalent, in any subject.
  2. Passing the SQE 1 and SQE 2 assessments (see exemptions on the SRA’s website).
  3. Gaining a minimum two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE).
  4. Demonstrating satisfactory character and suitability.

This gives would-be lawyers new flexibility and options as to how to plan their route to their chosen career. It also benefits in-house legal teams as it allows trainees to study alongside their full time role though either a standalone course or an apprenticeship.

In the SQE1 assessment, prospective lawyers are tested across two subject areas of functioning law knowledge (FLK):

FLK 1 

  • Business law and practice; 
  • Dispute resolution; 
  • Contracts; 
  • Tort; 
  • Legal system of England and Wales; 
  • Constitutional and administrative law; and 
  • EU law and legal services.

FLK 2 

  • Property practice; 
  • Wills and the administration of estates; 
  • Solicitors accounts; 
  • Land law; 
  • Trusts; and
  • Criminal law and practice.

The SQE2 assessment covers legal skills, such as:

  • Client interview and attendance note/legal analysis;
  • Advocacy;
  • Case and matter analysis;
  • Legal research;
  • Legal writing; and 
  • Legal drafting.

The assessments must be taken in order and ethics and professional conduct are examined pervasively throughout both assessments.

Putting qualifying work experience into practice

Matt Doyle, Senior Legal Counsel, Vodafone Group

Unlike its subsidiaries Vodafone UK and Vodafone Business, Vodafone Group has very little legal resource at junior level. This means senior staff handle simple, repetitive legal tasks and rely heavily on paralegals and agency staff. This means people at junior level see no career pathway at Vodafone Group.

So Vodafone Group decided to create opportunities through the SQE and QWE. It has progressed two internal paralegals into trainees by supporting their part-time academic study. This has laid foundations for a QWE programme that can be extended across all Vodafone’s UK legal teams.

QWE has enabled legal teams to function more efficiently and broaden lawyers’ managerial skillsets. It has enhanced talent retention and reduced acquisition costs. Vodafone Group is now spending less on recruitment and contractors - and developing junior lawyers familiar with the business. This also frees up senior lawyers to concentrate on complex legal work and team management. 

Embedding QWE at Vodafone Group was not without its challenges. Matt highlighted three key challenges that any business may face:

  • Hybrid working – when not at the office trainees miss out on significant learning opportunities. Watching and listening to others, business etiquette, relationship-building and simply asking quick questions are prime examples;
  • Rotations – as people move through roles to get a rounded legal education, backfilling becomes necessary. And, with teams across the organisation keen to work with trainees, consistency across how they’re engaged and managed is needed. To adhere to SQE principles, trainees must have a dedicated line manager, weekly 1-1 meetings and regular communication with their trainee coordinator; and
  • Education – in an environment that hasn’t incorporated trainees for a long time, there may be an ‘old guard’ that is sceptical about new processes. Some internal education may be necessary as QWE processes develop over time.

Increasing the talent pool through Solicitor Apprenticeships

Jonathan Bourne, Managing Director and Co-owner, Damar Training

Damar Training has collaborated with BARBRI to create two Solicitor Apprenticeships. These programmes are designed to tackle the narrowness of the current talent pool of emerging lawyers, attributable to:

  • Restricted routes to legal qualification;
  • Reliance on private practices to develop legal talent;
  • The struggle for in-house legal teams to compete with private practice salaries; and
  • Costs of traditional legal training, which also reduces diversity.

The first Damar Training Solicitor Apprenticeship in partnership with BARBRI begins imminently. This is the short-form 18-month course targeting part-qualified solicitors. These apprentices will typically have completed the GDL and may already be working in senior paralegal roles.

The other apprenticeship is the long-form three-year course. This was created for non-law graduates who may have some early career experience in a legal environment. These trainees may have previously set their sights on the now phased-out GDL.

Both apprenticeships provide the learning required by SQE along with additional support for developing competencies. They meet the requirements demanded by the SRA, and, crucially, also by businesses.

This will help in-house teams fine-tune their own in-house legal training and career pathways. The apprenticeships also shorten the route to full qualification to a possible five years, which will help businesses that struggle to accommodate longer training horizons.

The apprenticeships are funded by the government’s Apprenticeship Levy scheme. This means there’s no cost to trainees, nor for most employers (smaller business may incur a fee if they don’t contribute to the levy). This compares to typical training fees of between £150,000 to £200,000 over five years. It’s easy, then, to see how the Solicitor Apprenticeship will both increase the talent pool for employers and open law up as a realistic career option to a wider, more diverse group of people.

The apprentice’s view

Lewis Drew, South West Water

Lewis joined South West Water (part of Pennon Group Plc) in 2021 with a degree in English. Originally, his plan was to study for the GDL, before starting his career in law. 

Then COVID-19 happened, making more academic study an unattractive option.

So instead, Lewis joined South West Water, throwing himself into the world of work. There, he was reunited with Barry Matthews, who he’d previously met in Barry’s previous capacity as Founder of The Social Mobility Network.

Barry encouraged Lewis to become Pennon Group’s first Solicitor Apprentice. Lewis is relishing the prospect. He starts the three-year long-form BARBRI/Damar Training Solicitor Apprenticeship in August this year (2023). 

Lewis is excited that he’ll studying alongside his role at South West Water, because it means that when fully qualified he’ll also have relevant work experience.

Planning the future with SQE

Barry Matthews, Group Deputy General Counsel, Pennon Group Plc

Barry joined Pennon Group in February 2023 and is working on the organisation’s legal operations transformation strategy.

This involves developing lawyers at all levels across the entire organisation. Lewis (see above) is at the start of this programme and Barry will build the process out in the coming months. 

Barry chose BARBRI as Pennon Group’s training partner because it outperforms the industry average when it comes to learning outcomes. And, when combined with Damar Training’s commitment to apprenticeships, the complete training package Pennon will receive is comprehensive.

Another advantage is that with BARBRI / Damar Training, Pennon Group’s team can learn remotely. For colleagues such as Lewis, who live in countryside areas poorly served by infrastructure, this is a huge bonus. Learning while working is a tough gig and training courses that require no travel go a long way towards making it possible.

Learning alongside working, though, has major advantages. Barry recalled how, in the early stages of his training, he learned about contracts first. With no work experience as part of his course and the entire syllabus to complete before qualifying, it was five years before he worked on a real-life contract.

Conversely, one of the first apprentices of the in-house solicitor apprenticeship Barry set up in 2016 is now ‘almost qualified but delivering advice consummate with someone five years qualified.’ Combining learning and working means being able to study a subject in the morning and put the learning into practice in the afternoon.

Barry also sees the SQE as an opportunity to make the term Solicitor really mean something. This is possible thanks to a reduced importance on which organisation a solicitor studies with and a clearly recognised competence threshold. 

Things that more people like Lewis Drew will benefit from in the years ahead.

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