Dr Andrew Gilbert, Senior Lecturer, The Open University
A revolution is afoot in how people qualify as solicitors. In just over a year the first sitting of SQE1 is due to take place. Much of what is familiar in legal education – the qualifying law degree, graduate diploma in law, legal practice course – will no longer be required by the gatekeeper to the profession. Assuming the Legal Services Board signs off the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination), this is the last group of students who will get to choose to qualify via the current route, provided they accept the offer of their course by 31 August 2021 and start before the end of 2021, and assuming the LPC will still be there when they need it in September 2024 (who knows?). But, as we start the UCAS cycle for autumn 2021 entry, what are law schools telling potential future students about these changes? I looked at 121 law school websites to find out.
From 10th to 24th September 2020 I visited the websites of all the institutions on the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) list of qualifying law degree providers. When searching websites I focused on the homepage of the law school (or the equivalent relevant part of the university) or the homepage of the main qualifying law degree course. I use ‘law school’ here in a generic sense: not all are law schools as such. Some are law faculties, or departments, or disciplines within schools, or law with something else, or whole institutions which only do law. While I didn’t look at every part of every website, I did look at the parts where it was most likely that relevant information would be located (e.g. I didn’t look at staff profiles). Some institutions were just showing courses for entry in 2021, some were still showing clearing entry for 2020, and some had both, but wherever possible I looked at courses commencing in September/October 2021.
I sorted the information on websites into four categories:
- No mention of the SQE
- Some mention of the SQE but nothing relating to the institution’s courses
- Confirmation that the SQE will impact course provision but lacking detailed information about substance of changes and/or timings
- Detailed information about new courses or changes to existing courses in response to the SQE
Categorizing responses involved an element of interpretation and it is possible that some entries could be recategorized on the basis of an alternative interpretation. I carried out my survey diligently and in good faith, and I believe the data are accurate. However, it is not impossible, given the scale of the research, that some errors may exist in my findings. I have compiled a table of my results and am happy to share this (please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Findings – More Evolution than Revolution
The majority of websites (61%; n=72) do not mention the SQE at all. A further 17 websites (14%) mention the SQE with varying levels of detail from a single sentence to multiple paragraphs and sometimes with a link to the SRA website, but without reference to the institution’s law courses. In other words, three-quarters of websites do not currently indicate that the SQE will have any impact on law courses offered from autumn 2021. Of the remaining quarter, 20 (17%) state the SQE will affect future course provision but include no detailed information about the substance of changes and/or when they will take place; and 10 websites (8%) give some detail about new course provision in response to the SQE.* These data broadly match what some universities reported to the SRA earlier this year. Respective figures for the subset of Russell Group universities are 50%, 32%, 14% and 5%.
Most references are to the SQE generally, but where specific reference is made it tends to be to SQE1, with only 3 websites explicitly mentioning SQE2. There is also a broad spectrum of commitments made to applicants about the extent to which courses will prepare them for the SQE, from some rather indefinite statements: ‘ready to prepare’, ‘designed to help you prepare’, ‘give you support in preparing’, ‘provide graduates with a solid foundation to tackle the [SQE]’, ‘aimed at preparing students fully’; to the more categorical: ‘designed to enable students to pass the SQE’.
It’s reasonable to assume that some law schools are planning curriculum changes in response to the SQE and these are awaiting formal approval, and there is also evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected institutional timelines. I speculate that there are other institutions which are biding their time to see what others do before finalising their own offerings. It seems likely that websites will be updated in the coming months as more law schools unveil their plans for 2021. However, given the continuing widespread opposition to the SQE, I wonder how much this picture will change in the coming year.
What about new entrants?
The SRA is keen to promote a ‘competitive legal education market’ as one outcome of the SQE’s introduction. In addition to the QLD list, the SRA website also contains a list of SQE training providers which currently contains 41 entries, of which 15 also appear on the QLD list. I also looked at the websites on this list. Of the 26 not on the QLD list, 6 state they will be offering training for the SQE but details are limited at present, and a further 2 provide detailed course information for SQE1 and SQE2 preparation including duration, delivery methods and actual or estimated course fees.
Continuity and change
While there is much which is still unclear about how law schools are responding – or not – to the SQE, it is likely that many will need to do more to at least articulate to current applicants what the SQE might mean for their future careers and where the courses they provide fit within those aspirations. This snapshot of law school websites shows that only a handful of institutions are currently offering courses which aim to get students ready to actually sit the exam upon graduation, with others perhaps tacitly leaving this task to new entrants to the ‘legal education market’.
*This adds up to 119 as two institutions on the list no longer offer law.