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SQE no ‘silver bullet’ for increasing solicitor diversity

SRA criticised for resorting to ‘spin’ in press release that ignores ‘tiered’ profession concerns

27 March 2017

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Increasing diversity in the legal profession is ‘critically’ dependent on the actions of employers and training providers, a new report says, adding that any actions by the solicitor regulator will only achieve ‘modest gains’ without buy-in from sector stakeholders.

An independent study published by the Bridge Group into the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s plans for a new centralised assessment for would-be solicitors – the solicitors qualifying examination – has concluded that ‘a complex range of factors at every stage on the journey’ means there is ‘no silver bullet’ to address the issue of diversity in the profession.

The report, ‘Introducing the SQE: Monitoring and Maximising Diversity’, argues that the controversial exam proposal will make the routes to qualification harder to navigate and ‘quickly’ create a tiered system, with some law firms placing greater stock in traditional pathways from which ‘high-performing candidates have been recruited for many years’.

The Bridge Group study found that training providers and legal employers had a responsibility to improve diversity within the profession’s ranks: ‘Reforming qualification can be a step in the right direction, but is not a panacea to address all diversity concerns; continued effort is required.’

The report, which is the latest document to pour cold water on the SRA’s plans, adds that the regulator would need to make sure there was ‘greater transparency of data’, so prospective lawyers could be better informed.

Nicholas Miller, director of the charitable policy association, said: ‘The proposal to introduce the SQE is designed to ensure consistency of standards and of competence; this is also very likely to shake up the training provider market and introduce more, and new, models of provision.

‘These changes have the potential to support diversity through greater flexibility in training pathways, but also carry risks with routes to qualification becoming increasingly complex and challenging to navigate.

‘It is imperative that the SRA, training providers, and employers all embrace and enact their responsibilities to mitigate for these risks and support fair and equitable entrance to the profession.’

Julie Brannan, the SRA’s director for education and training, remarked: ‘While our proposals to introduce the SQE are not a magic bullet, we would hope they can contribute to a more diverse profession, through addressing some of the barriers within the current system and creating a more transparent legal training market.

‘We recognise the need for students to have access to reliable, independent information about the outcomes they can expect from pursuing different routes into the profession, and for employers to have access to information that could help support diversity in recruitment.

‘Should the SQE be introduced, we would work with all partners to provide guidance and support on the changes to help entrants to the profession navigate the new system.’

The SRA suggested that the independent report endorsed its view that the proposed SQE could lead to improved diversity in the profession and increased social mobility. A press release sent by the regulator was headlined, ‘SRA proposals could create more opportunities’.

Quoting from the report, the regulator said: ‘The proposals are highly likely to increase the number, and broaden the range, of training providers in the market, and provoke new models of training including online provision.

‘Wider range of choice is... an important opportunity to support diversity, since it will enable students to chart more flexible pathways. Increased competitive pressures are likely to be introduced by the SQE, with an expectation this will drive down costs, potentially lowering this financial barrier for trainees.’

However, writing on his blog, Lawyer Watch, University College London professor of law and professional ethics Richard Moorhead said the SRA’s take on the report was ‘spin’.

‘The report suggests the need for all to work together on diversity and education, to build trust and shared solutions. It also suggests the significant risks and work the SRA has to do to give the proposals a chance of improving things. Leading with spin is not the way to do this,’ he wrote.

‘Leading with spin is a way to build on the considerable cynicism that exists about the SRA’s proposals. The report is in fact more of a recognition of the considerable risks entailed in the proposals. Better to accentuate that understanding, if the regulator is to produce proposals that people will and can work with.’

The SRA has twice consulted on its proposals. A decision is expected later this spring.

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor of Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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