Those students hoping to study or practice law overseas need to know about planned changes to qualifying examinations for solicitors in the UK. These changes are designed to broaden access to the profession, but at the same time, guarantee high standards. In April 2017, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced that the former routes of GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law) and LPC (Legal Practice Course) would be scrapped in favour of an independent assessment known as the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) from September 2020. Trainees who are partway through their courses at this point will have a choice over which route to follow.
According to the SRA, one of the aims of the new exam is to make sure that all solicitors meet the same professional standards. “We currently have more than 100 universities doing law degrees and lots doing the GDL – and they have completely different exams,” says Julie Brannan, director for education and training at the SRA. “We are proposing a common exam with a common standard and we think that will give confidence that we, as a regulator, have checked the competence of people who have qualified.” A further aim is to ensure that talent and work ethic, not background, ensure success. Different routes to qualification, such as apprenticeships, are already welcome in helping attract candidates from all backgrounds into the profession. But the SQE wants to challenge the perception that some routes are more valid than others.
Planned changes should also, in theory, save students money. Currently, the LPC can cost up to £16,000 for domestic students, and around 9,000 people complete it every year although there are only around 5,500 training contracts available. This additional financial burden often added to substantial existing student debt. The SQE allows students to integrate LPC subjects into their law degree and contains a practical element, helping trainees to fund themselves through work in the profession. However, as with any new system, there is no evidence that the SQE will save students money as it still favours those who can afford to save for the exam (which they might not pass) or who are sponsored by a law firm. Furthermore, it does nothing to address the issue of too many newly qualified solicitors (NQs) vying for too few jobs. This is the case with many industries, and the law can no longer be perceived as a “safe” career option that guarantees employment. This is not helped by the fact that universities can accept too many students for preparation courses, regardless of their prospects for passing the SQE. The only way to aid (but not guarantee) future success is to secure a place at a highly selective university and/or a training placement with a large international firm.
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