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The SQE Three Years on…

In 2021, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) launched a new route to qualify as a solicitor, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The SRA took the view that the LPC became inaccessible to some students, due to  course fee costs and training contracts becoming more competitive.  The SQE can be split into two parts – SQE1 and SQE2, which offer a combination of knowledge-based and practical-based learning. Rather than progressing to a training contract, the SQE requires a minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience for admission to the roll.

 

With the introduction of the SQE route, the SRA aimed to establish a more inclusive pathway to qualification. Recent data from April 2024 has shown that the SQE pass rate is 56%. This has led to questions around the SRA and whether it is achieving the goal of improving inclusivity to law.

 

Here at Birchrose Associates, we reflect three years on and consider whether the SQE has proved itself as an accessible pathway into the sector.

 

Benefits of the SQE

The SQE removes the requirement for a qualifying law degree or a conversion course, thereby improving accessibility into the profession. With two standardised exams, the SQE opens opportunities for people from diverse academic and professional backgrounds to pursue a career in law. With the legal profession and client needs rapidly changing, diversity of thought is crucial to ensuring commercial and social success for law firms. An independent report published in 2020 by Bridge Group, highlighted that the SQE has “powerful potential” to increase diversity in the legal profession. Particularly, the report highlights the fairness of the SQE exam design by:

 

  • “The use of single-best-answer questions in SQE1 as an objective evaluation methodology as possible

  • the decision for a uniform approach for the SQE2 assessment, with potentially greater diversity benefits than the alternative of giving candidates options” – Bridge Group 2020.

 

This standardisation of the exams, coupled with a focus on assessing practical legal skills and knowledge, prepares future solicitors for the demands of legal practice.

 

The structure of the SQE means that candidates can sit SQE1 and SQE2 at their own pace. Unlike the GDL/LPC, where candidates would have to enroll in an intensive one-year full time or two-year part-time course, the SQE offers students time to prepare. Consequently, this potentially reduces the overall cost of qualification. Currently the SQE costs £3,980 compared to the LPC at over £17,000. However, the SQE has hidden costs such as optional preparation courses that can cost up to £11,300.

 

The SQE also removes the financial risk of the LPC route. According to the Law Society Gazette (2019), 40% of students who complete the LPC do not get training contracts, causing aspiring solicitors to risk £17,000 to fund the LPC with no guarantee that they will be able to qualify as a solicitor.  Obtaining a training contract is notoriously competitive, with success rate at major City firms being between 1-3% according to Chambers Student (2023). The SQE eradicates the competitive nature of training contract applications and provides students with flexibility from Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). The QWE can be completed on a full time or part time basis.

 

Overall, it seems that the SQE has the theoretical framework to be accessible and successful, but what is the reality of the SQE since its launch?

 

The reality of the SQE?

So far, the SQE has had a rough start.

 

With the pass rate at 56% many candidates have unfortunately failed the SQE due to rigorous exam structures, IT failures and a harsh exam environment. Under the SQE’s predecessor, the Legal Practice Course (LPC), the City of London Law Society’s training committee stated that the pass rate among City-sponsored students had typically been above 95%.

 

The City of London Law Society’s training committee noted that “the level successful candidates are expected to achieve in the SQE1 is that of a ‘day-one solicitor’, in contrast to the level under the LPC which was that of a ‘day-one trainee’.”  Additionally, students have reported that the questions are esoteric and are not typical questions that newly qualified solicitors would be able to answer. Test it out yourself with the SRA’s sample questions:

https://sqe.sra.org.uk/exam-arrangements/assessment-information/sqe1-sample-questions/flk1/question1

Clearly, the disparity between the LPC and SQE pass rates illustrate that the SQE is generally considered a tough exam.

 

As a result of students failing the SQE, law firms such as Clifford Chance, Slaughter & May and CMS have rescinded training contracts. Naturally, this has left multiple students devasted. Historically it is standard procedure for law firms to rescind training contracts if students failed the LPC, however, the SQE methodology of assessment is unfamiliar and new. It raises questions if rescinding training contracts due to the failure of the SQE is proportional. Patrick McCann, Director of Learning at Magic Circle firm Linklaters, commented on LinkedIn, he “hopes law firms will show more understanding and support for training contract holders”. 

 

Students have also complained about the environment in which the SQE exams are taken and have commented it’s “grueling and unreliable”. On April 15, Kaplan (exam provider) and the SRA had to apologise after it emerged that 175 students were incorrectly told they had failed the SQE. Consequently, this caused an outrage on social media as it was revealed that students who had their training contracts cancelled were among those hit by the Kaplan SQE error. Due to this incident, Kaplan have offered a goodwill payment of £250 to students. However, this was an inexcusable error and would have caused students who were wrongly told they failed an immeasurable amount of stress.

 

Despite the SRA’s intentions to increase inclusivity and diversity in the legal profession with the SQE, according to their own data published in October 2022, there is a significant racial disparity across the exam. The pass rate for white candidates was 63%, however for black candidates the pass rate was significantly lower at 23%. This disparity is not necessarily due to a lack of intelligence or effort, but rather the inherent biases with the SQE exam themselves. For context, out of the 871 candidates, 87% were white and 13% were black, highlighting that the SQE had so far not increased diversity or inclusivity to the legal profession.

 

Various factors can be identified to account for this academic gap such as systemic racism in the legal industry, implicit bias, cultural differences and social class. Research from the Honor Society Foundation has proven that standardised exams can often exacerbate cultural bias through exam formatting, scenarios, and language. With persistent trends illustrating that black students exhibit the lowest SQE pass rate, more data is needed from the SRA to ensure the SQE process is fair, equitable and inclusive to the legal profession.

 

sqe

Final thoughts

Overall, it is too early to draw concrete conclusions on the long-term impacts of the SQE. The theoretical design of the SQE has potential benefits to transform the legal industry: increasing affordability, accessibility, diversity and inclusivity. However, so far in practice the SQE has faced a significant number of systematic failures such as erroneous marking and low pass rates. Perhaps, the SQE needs more practical thought into its framework so the transition from the LPC to the SQE is smoother. Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive claimed that the SQE has had a positive start but acknowledges that the SRA has significant steps to take to improve the process, which will see the measurable extent of its success over the coming years.

 

As legal recruiters, we understand that for candidates and law firms navigating the new SQE process can be challenging.

 

Get in touch with us for further analysis on how the SQE process is impacting law firms and prospective candidates.

 

Not sure whether to do the SQE? Read our previous article here for more information:

https://www.birchroseassociates.co.uk/an-introduction-to-the-solicitors-qualifying-exams-sqe/

 

Sources

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