The impact of the SQE on international students and lawyers (Part 1)

In our guide, Training the future lawyer – are you SQE ready?, we suggested that the SQE could drive up international applications to the levels seen just over a decade ago when the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTT) was still in operation (see Fig.10 of the guide below).

This has sparked some interesting discussions and so we thought we’d take the opportunity to set out in more detail, our understanding of the SRA’s proposals to date and how it will impact the higher education market.

Fig.10: Foreign Qualified Lawyers Requalifying in England and Wales

  2008-2009 2014-15 2015-2016 2016-2017
Number of international lawyers admitted by the QLTT/QLTS[1]

 

1895 515 532 661
Proportion of total admissions

 

22% 8% 8% 10%

Source: Law Society Annual Statistical Reports

Why are international students or lawyers attracted to study or qualify in England & Wales? What’s in it for them? Will it give them a more globally recognised degree? Enable them to qualify as a solicitor of England & Wales? Or have they always dreamt of spending three years in the UK dodging the cold rain and eating fish and chips?

I’m going to leave aside the ever-changing visa regime and the more emotional reasons that people choose to live and study in another country[2], and focus on the structural changes brought about by the SQE and how these might have an impact on the answers to those questions.

International applicants for undergraduate law

When an international student is considering applying for a law degree, they want to know that their degree will be widely recognised outside of England & Wales and may even enhance their career prospects in their home jurisdiction.  Depending on their future plans, they may consider whether the degree will enable them to qualify as a lawyer in England & Wales after they have completed their studies.

Reduced level of quality assurance – will it have an impact?

Historically the SRA and BSB have supplemented the regulatory framework of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and provided additional quality assurance and content requirements (the Foundations of Legal Knowledge)[3] for Qualifying Law Degrees (QLD) which were necessary for progression to the next stage of the professional qualification.

The quality assurance function of the SRA and BSB in relation to QLDs has diminished over the last five years and, in the new world order, the SRA and the BSB will both rely entirely on the QAA for quality assurance.

Whilst the SRA will no longer place any requirements on the content of the degree which must be obtained prior to admission, the SQE 1 assessments test each of the existing Foundations of Legal Knowledge, and the BSB will retain these content requirements under their new Future Bar Training regime.

the BSB’s only regulatory involvement in undergraduate law degrees or CPE courses (i.e. Graduate Diploma in Law) which will start in or after academic year 2019/20 will be the continuing requirements that law degrees are compliant with the QAA subject benchmark statement for law and that degree courses contain the seven “Foundations of Legal Knowledge” subjects as well as the skills associated with graduate legal work such as legal research.”[4]

Some commentators feel that the removal of the additional regulatory oversight previously provided by the SRA and BSB will make England & Wales law degrees less attractive in the international market.  However, given the global reputation of the England & Wales higher education sector, the limited quality assurance historically provided by the SRA and BSB, the continued quality assurance provided by the QAA and the fact that most law schools will want to prepare their students for the SQE and the Bar, it is our view that this change will have a limited impact on the appetite of international students to study law at undergraduate level in England & Wales.

Qualifying Work Experience requirement – will it put people off?

International graduate students who are not qualified lawyers in another jurisdiction, will continue to be in exactly the same position as any other graduate.  In the future, this will mean that they:

  • May hold a law or non-law degree
  • Will not be eligible for exemptions from the SQE
  • Will have to satisfy the Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) requirements
  • Will have to meet the character and suitability requirements

Whilst there is a great deal more flexibility built into the new QWE requirements[5], there is no exemption from this simply by virtue of being ‘international’.  As such, this group of students may prefer (as some do now) to study and qualify somewhere where they will not have to satisfy a two-year work experience requirement prior to qualification[6].

Lawyers who have already qualified elsewhere will be eligible to be admitted if they[7]:

  • Hold a legal professional qualification in a recognised overseas jurisdiction
  • Show they meet the competences in the Statement of Solicitor Competence (SoSC), and the knowledge of English & Welsh law set out in the Statement of Legal Knowledge either:
    • through a mapping exercise agreed by the SRA (which may give them no, partial or full exemptions from the SQE) or
    • through successful completion of the SQE (in part or in full).
  • Have a degree or qualifications or experience which are equivalent to a degree.
  • Meet the character and suitability requirements.

The new SQE regime for international lawyers therefore combines the more ‘open for business’ approach of the QLTS recognised jurisdictions process (which dramatically increased the jurisdictions from which lawyers could apply), with a much greater capacity to apply for exemptions from the SQE.  Furthermore (on the face of it) there is no work experience requirement.

Although there is no doubt that the tests under the SQE will be tougher than the QLTS (the content is wider even if SQE1 is reduced to 180 questions), the opportunity to apply for exemptions will mean that they can in principle be avoided altogether.

In the next blog we will set out the process for recognition and gaining exemptions and consider whether gaining exemptions is in fact counter-productive!

Are you ready?

Against this backdrop, universities and law schools would be well advised to think about the following questions:

  • Do you understand your position within the international legal education market?
  • Which markets are likely to be available to you given your particular strengths and other wider trends?
  • Which are the most attractive target overseas markets for you to market a potential SQE offer in this area?
  • Do you have an opportunity to expand your international offer?

How we can help   

Working together, Hook Tangaza and Jenny Crewe Consulting can offer you a variety of services to prepare for this new legal education environment. In particular, we can:

  • Facilitate workshops to enable your department to develop your future vision for legal education post-SQE.
  • Provide you with the statistics and other information that will help you understand your position in the domestic and international legal education market.
  • Assist with making business cases for the launch of new and adapted courses.
  • Provide you with more insights into the likely evolution of the legal workforce in the next 5-10 years.
  • Assist in identifying suitable target jurisdictions for international marketing efforts.
  • Provide, where necessary, introductions to, and/or liaison with, overseas legal education regulators.
  • And, of course, we can answer all your questions on the SQE

[1] The QLTS was introduced in 2011 and the SRA permitted foreign lawyers who had embarked on a route to qualification using this route a lengthy grace period in which to complete their requalification. Consequently, the numbers doing the new QLTS route only built up slowly.

[2] See the 2012 British Council research, Trust Pays.

[3] The specified content is known as the seven Foundations of Legal Knowledge and are Criminal Law, Equity and Trusts, Law of the European Union, Obligations 1 (Contract), Obligations 2 (Tort), Property/Land Law, Public Law (Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and Human Rights Law).

[4] See para. 9 of the Common Protocol between the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority on academic legal training www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/media/1985448/bqm_part_2a_-_a7_common_protocol_on_the_academic_component_of_training.pdf

[5] E.g. no contentious seat requirement, can be gained in up to four different organisations, can include time prior to passing the SQE.

[6] The commonly made comparison is with the US where you can take the Bar Exam straight after the JD.

[7] https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/policy/sqe/principle-admission/

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