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How the SQE shifts power from law firms to students

‘No longer can a law firm dangle a training contract in front of paralegals or insist that getting a job in a firm’s onshore centre is not a route to qualifying’

While many incumbents have been trying to stop Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) happening, new entrants and innovators across the legal market have been thinking about how to educate, attract and develop talent in a changing world, writes Crispin Passmore ahead of his appearance at LegalEdCon North later this month

Those that link all elements of the evolving legal market will be the winners in the next decade. Those that see SQE simply as a change to the way that solicitors qualify are missing the bigger picture.

Even before the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) started to liberalise its approach to regulation in 2014 the legal market was already undergoing fundamental change. Axiom, Elevate, LOD, United Lex — these types of business have been offering an alternative to legal advice from traditional law firms for over 20 years. The Big Four were offering alternatives to legal services — tax accountants, legal process engineering, outsourcing — before the SRA was even created. And the rise of technology to support legal delivery is slower than the prophets predict but still fundamentally reshaping delivery.

These enterprise legal service providers think differently to law firms. They see their workforce differently — without the bizarre categorisation of lawyer/non-lawyer. Instead of lawyers being the front line of delivery backed by other disciplines as necessary, they create teams that are multi-disciplinary, valued for their contribution rather than their title.

Add to this that the labour market has also changed. Firms like Keystone Law have rethought what a workforce looks like for a law firm just as much as Axiom has. And now firms like Aria-Grace are offering the same for unregulated corporate legal services.

All of these models appear to rely upon traditional law firms training lawyers who move to these alternative or enterprise models once their practice is established. SQE changes this.

Final release tickets are now on sale for LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January

Whether it is Deloitte and its three year training programme, United Lex and its modular training, or Rocket Lawyer training its own lawyers in an unregulated business, we are witnessing a breaking down of labour market rigidities. F-LEX style flexible paralegal resourcing will combine the ‘gig economy’ with portfolio management and development at the start of a legal career. That will shift control of qualifying work experience away from law firms and on to the individual. No longer can a law firm dangle a training contract in front of paralegals or insist that getting a job in a firm’s onshore centre is not a route to qualifying. These individuals can earn while they build their portfolio, learn online and sit SQE at their own pace. They will qualify as solicitors if they are good enough rather than if they can secure a training contract.

Some educators are responding. I am as excited to see traditional law schools choose to ignore SQE as they develop more inspiring law and business, law and technology or law and legal design courses, as I am to see modern universities incorporate SQE preparation, and perhaps even SQE1, into their undergraduate degree. Plurality and diversity of approach are the key to meeting the diverse labour market needs of the legal market.

It may be the case many of the current smaller suppliers of education may not be able to compete against big incumbents or exciting new entrants like the College of Legal Practice. Online delivery of skills and knowledge training is coming to law and that should be welcomed if it reduces cost and increases access. But there is also the opportunity for smaller suppliers (or indeed larger ones) to offer differentiated undergraduate, postgraduate, or continuing professional development courses to specific market segments.

All of these changes take us back to the difference between seeing SQE as part of a wider set of changes or a narrow change to how solicitors qualify. The former leads to the development of a genuine workforce strategy. That is one that follows the business strategy — what sort of skills, knowledge and experience does the firm need across multiple disciplines to deliver the services that its strategy is based upon? A workforce strategy should encompass all the workforce without a hint of ‘lawyer exceptionalism’. It should not start and stop with qualifying as a solicitor. Those law firms and legal businesses that grasp this are already making changes. It is not too late for any firm to catch up.

Crispin Passmore, founder of Passmore Consulting and former executive director for policy at the SRA, will be speaking at LegalEdCon North in Manchester on 30 January 2020. Final release tickets for the conference can be purchased here.




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