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Call on SRA to regulate work experience element of SQE

Failure to set minimum salary could lead to trainees being exploited, say junior lawyers

2 May 2019

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Junior lawyers have expressed concern at the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s decision not to regulate training contracts and principals, saying this could lead to future ‘trainees’ being exploited when the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) comes into force.

“We are particularly concerned that with the Solicitors Qualifying Examination coming into force, no action will be taken by the SRA in this respect,” says the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) in an open letter to the SRA, urging the regulator to “consider how it will regulate the work experience element of the SQE.” 

Failure to regulate the work experience element of the SQE, the JLD continues, risks junior lawyers being “exploited in unhealthy cultures, work and training environments and inadequate training will be provided”. 

This, the group argues, will lead to solicitors qualifying “on the basis of work experience that falls below the standard that should be expected of the profession”.

Further adverse consequences would include detriment to users of legal services and damage to the reputation of the profession. The group also fears this could give rise to ethical issues incompatible with the SRA’s competency statement. 

“The SRA must consider the ramifications of the SQE proposals and ensure that a mechanism is in place to regulate the work experience element of the SQE, the training principals and the training providers,” the group concludes. 

The JLD also raises additional concerns about the related issue of the minimum salary for trainees – a mandatory requirement the SRA abolished in 2014.

The group objected to the move at the time, arguing this would reduce mobility and diversity in the profession, and contrary to the SRA’s obligation to encourage “an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession”. 

The following year, the Law Society stepped into the breach, making its own recommendations every year. Currently, Chancery Lane recommends a minimum trainee salary of £22,121 in London and £19,619 outside London.

Last year, an SRA survey revealed that trainees were paid less since the minimum salary required was abolished. Women and trainees from BAME backgrounds were most affected. 

And earlier this year, a study by legal recruiter Douglas Scott showed 25 per cent of trainees were paid less than the recommended salary.

While the SRA expects SQE to improve access to the profession, such aspirations will not be fulfilled without the regulator reviewing its position on minimum salary, according to the JLD: “The SRA cannot improve social mobility and access to the profession while it allows firms who provide training to aspiring solicitors, to pay as little as the National Minimum Wage (£14,814.802 before tax and national insurance contributions as at April 2019).”

Against this background, the group further warns, SQE could result in more ‘trainees’ receiving little or no remuneration while building up their work experience under SQE2. 

The JLD’s own research has found that a quarter of members had work unpaid for more than six months.

“This is a grave concern and one of which we are reminded with the impending SQE and the two-year work placement requirement,” the letter says. “If there are no safeguards on the salary a trainee solicitor is paid now, or in the future format of the SQE, the SRA will be placing a significant barrier on entry to the profession for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.” 

 

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