What can we learn from looking at lawyer licensure examinations in other countries?

The question may seem to be beyond the scope of the Testing Task Force’s work. After all, the Task Force is studying the bar examination as it is administered by United States jurisdictions, and the legal licensure processes of other countries are necessarily dictated by the legal systems and needs of those countries. Nevertheless, it can be instructive to consider foreign bar examinations and the role played by those examinations within each country’s respective licensure process.

In this month’s blog post, we’re taking a look at the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination, which will be required for prospective solicitors in England and Wales beginning in 2021. Next month, we’ll turn our attention to Ontario, where significant reforms to lawyer licensing requirements were made in 2006, including the introduction of the licensing examinations now in use there. In both cases, postgraduate educational requirements have been or will be replaced with new licensure examinations.

Lawyers in the United Kingdom are either solicitors or barristers; a pair of centralized regulatory bodies, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB), authorize and regulate solicitors and barristers, respectively, in England and Wales. In 2013, following the completion of a major study of the education and training requirements for new lawyers in England and Wales, the SRA began planning significant changes to its regulation of solicitors, which are scheduled to take effect beginning in 2021. These changes include the introduction of a standardized exam and other changes to the solicitor licensure process.

Under the existing (soon to be former) system of licensure, those who wish to be admitted as solicitors in England and Wales must complete a multi-step process that includes both undergraduate and postgraduate educational requirements and supervised work (training) requirements, as well as a character assessment; there is no bar examination. Under the new system, a period of supervised work will continue to be required, though with changes; the character assessment will also remain. However, the undergraduate educational requirements will become more flexible, and the postgraduate educational requirements will be eliminated. In their place, a new examination, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination, will be required.

While the details of the new examination are still being finalized, as currently envisioned it will have two stages. Candidates will most likely take the first stage of the exam soon after completing an undergraduate degree, while the second stage of the exam would be taken following the required two years of supervised work experience.

One portion of the first stage of the exam will be administered via computer-based testing and will use objective questions (including multiple-choice, single best answer, and extended matching questions) to test candidates’ ability to apply substantive and procedural legal knowledge, as well as knowledge of legal ethics, to specific scenarios. This stage will also include written exam components designed to test candidates’ legal research and writing abilities.

The second stage of the exam will test legal skills (e.g., client interviewing, advocacy and persuasive oral communication, and legal research), requiring candidates to complete several different legal tasks such as interviewing a simulated client or using a database to perform legal research.

In a recent issue of the Bar Examiner, Julie Brannan, the Director of Education and Training for the SRA, writes that the introduction of the new exam will result in “a more fair, objective process” for admission, as “all solicitors will [be] assessed against a single, consistent standard.” Brannan notes, among other things, the difficulty in the current system of ensuring fair and consistent standards across the wide range of educational providers and training supervisors who are charged with assessing the performance of solicitor candidates. Additionally, the SRA hopes that the new requirements will help ease a backlog of candidates who have completed their educational requirements but cannot find trainee positions, and will make the choice of solicitor as career path more accessible to those for whom the cost of the Legal Practice Course (currently around $20,000, per Brannan) presents a significant barrier.

It is important to note that, in redesigning its licensure program, the SRA began by reviewing and updating the list of competencies that new solicitors should possess. Only once core competencies are established can a regulatory authority determine how best to verify that candidates possess those competencies; this is why the Testing Task Force’s study begins with stakeholder research and a practice analysis, all designed to determine the knowledge, skills, and abilities that newly licensed lawyers need.

But the SRA’s reforms also make clear that it is necessary to determine not only which competencies need to be verified, but how best to verify them—and, if an examination will be used, then what type of examination (format, timing, etc.) is best. In the case of solicitor regulation in England and Wales, a wide-ranging exam was determined to be preferable to a series of undergraduate and postgraduate educational requirements. Check back next month for our post about a similar shift by the Law Society of Ontario from a postgraduate educational component to standardized testing as a means of verifying the competence of candidates seeking admission to the bar.

Further Reading

  1. https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/press/sqe-ensure-high-consistent-standards.page; https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/press/sqe-launch-2021.page.
  2. Currently, in addition to passing a character assessment, aspiring solicitors must successfully complete (1) an undergraduate law degree that meets certain requirements for subject-matter coverage OR an undergraduate degree in another field and a one-year postgraduate course in law; (2) a one-year postgraduate Legal Practice Course, which covers “core practice areas” such as wills and estates, business law, and property law; skills such as  legal research, writing, and advocacy; and more specialized substantive topics, such as employment and family law; (3) a two-year Period of Supervised Training in an approved law office or legal department; and (4) a short Professional Skills Course, generally taken as part of the Period of Supervised Training. See also https://www.sra.org.uk/students/resources/student-information.page. Beginning in 2021, (1) the undergraduate law degree requirement will be replaced with a requirement that candidates have an undergraduate degree in any field or an equivalent qualification or experience; (2) the Legal Practice Course will be eliminated; (3) the Period of Supervised Training will be replaced with a requirement that candidates have two years of “qualifying legal experience” (which might include, e.g., working as a paralegal or in a university legal services office); (4) the Professional Skills Course will be eliminated; and (5) the Solicitors Qualifying Examination will be required. See also https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/policy/sqe/solicitor-persona.page.
  3. The description of the exam components given here is based on information presented in Julie Brannan, “Training for Tomorrow: The Reform of Education and Training Requirements for English and Welsh Solicitors,” 86(4) The Bar Examiner (Winter 2017-2018) 17, 24-26.
  4. Id. at 17, 18.
  5. http://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/competence-statement.page; see also Brannan, supra note 3 at 20.

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