The impact of SQE on workers’ rights

This article is brought to you by James Cunningham from Legal Sector Workers United

In 2014 the SRA, as part of the more widespread deregulation of legal training, scrapped the minimum salary for trainee solicitors with the purported goal of encouraging diversity in the profession. In a way it worked. There is still a stark pay gap between white and BAME trainees and between men and women but salaries for the lowest paid trainees were cut until they hit equilibrium at or just above the minimum wage. Having struck this blow for equality the SRA congratulated themselves on a job well done. Now a few years later, puzzled by the fact that their efforts thus far have yet to solve the various inequalities within the profession, the SRA have decided to scrap the LPC/training contract and introduce the SQE.

As most readers will know the qualifying law degree + LPC + two year training contract is to be replaced by a degree (in any subject) + two exams, SQE1 and SQE2 + two years worth of qualifying work experience. I sat the pilot version of SQE1 and it was bad. Using a multiple choice format to test knowledge of legal principles is absurd when virtually every question you encounter in practice can be answered with ‘it depends’, but the exams themselves are only one component of the new regime. 

According to the SRA this qualifying work experience may include:

  • a placement during a law degree
  • working in a law clinic
  • work at a voluntary or charitable organisation such Citizens’ Advice or a law centre
  • working as a paralegal
  • a training contract.

The two years can be split across any length of time and can be split across up to four organisations.

As the SRA have been loudly trumpeting, the SQE will be more flexible than the old model of qualification and they are right to note that obtaining a training contract is a significant barrier to qualification as a solicitor. Speculatively, this will have little impact on city firms and big nationals. They will continue to recruit trainees and run them through a two year scheme with enough in house and bespoke training to mould them into the image desired. 

But what about the smaller firms? There are some benefits: experience gained as a paralegal can count as well as experience gained during a training contract which will probably result in a quicker path to qualification. The downside is that these smaller firms will see little point in offering two-year training contracts at all. 

With trainees being able to easily move between firms, and quite possibly an expectation that they will do so, what was a two-year training contract will become four six-month contracts. With little incentive for smaller firms to invest in training that cost will be shifted onto the trainee, and not just in terms of who will pay the fee for it. Allowing employees to stay on the clock while they attend training will seem much less attractive to employers when there is no requirement for them to do so or any guarantee they will reap the benefits. Even if your firm will spring for the SQE2 exam fees, it is unlikely that they’d consider employing you without you having passed SQE1 – having paid for it yourself. 

The danger is that the new SQE will create a two-tiered profession, with larger firms mimicking the training contract they already know and are familiar with and smaller firms offering temporary contracts as and when they need them and selling them as flexible. This isn’t ‘Fiverr’ for junior lawyers, at least not yet, but when bosses say a job is flexible what they mean is it is precarious and exploitative. Trying to qualify as a solicitor while working in family law, employment or crime could turn into hoping you can bank enough work from a zero hours contract to satisfy the SRA, and if your hours are low, how long will it be before bosses start offering extra unpaid as a favour?

A two-year training contract is hardly perfect, and LSWU has taken many employers to task over excessive workloads, bullying, poor support and supervision, and trainee salaries below the living wage falling disproportionately on women and BAME workers. The SQE will lower the financial bar to entering the profession (although it will remain an insurmountable bar to many). This may open up greater diversity in the profession, but a cheaper ticket to greater exploitation isn’t an inviting prospect and by failing to address these issues the SRA have squandered an opportunity to redress the imbalances and inequalities throughout the profession. The problem with the SQE isn’t so much that things will change, but that things will stay the same.

But if the SRA won’t protect junior lawyers, we will. LSWU represents solicitors, barristers, administrators, cleaners, legal execs, paralegals and anyone else working in the legal industry. We are at the forefront of the fight for a fairer industry that guarantees universal access to justice and if you aren’t already a member you should join.

If you’re not already a LSWU member, you can join here.