Not So SQE-asy: Will the SQE be too difficult?

December 30, 2019

3 min read

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What's going on here?

Potentially high failure rates of up to 50% for the new Solicitor’s Qualifying Exam (SQE) could result in reputational damage for law firms unable to fill their trainee quotas, as well as reduced diversity in their trainee intake.

What does this mean?

The SQE is set to replace the Legal Practice Course (LPC) in September 2021 as the route to qualification for prospective solicitors. It will be split into three tests totalling 360 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) assessing legal knowledge (SQE1), and four practical tests assessing legal skills (SQE2). SQE1 will cover topics familiar to law students, such as property, criminal, public and contract law, but with an emphasis on practical application. SQE2 will involve skills such as advocacy, client interviewing and legal drafting in two practice areas, such as dispute resolution and business practice.

However, there are concerns of a much higher fail rate than the LPC. The SQE is based on the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), an exam taken by lawyers in other countries to qualify in England and Wales. The QLTS has a failure rate of 40-50%, in comparison to the LPC’s 10-20% failure rate.

What's the big picture effect?

A higher failure rate can lead to unfilled spaces in the recruitment rounds of trainees by firms. Patrick McCann (Global Head of Learning at Magic-Circle firm Linklaters) cites the possible reputational risk on law firms, who may be accused of providing inadequate training or not recruiting the best candidates. Law firms must also manage the new practical challenges of SQE2. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recommends that trainees take this second test after their qualifying work experience. This may require firms to let trainees take time off from the office during their training contract, potentially disrupting their training and the firm’s work.

The SQE may also lead to a less diverse group of trainees. As City of London Law Society chairman Edward Sparrow states, the key criteria for success will be “who will get taught how to do multiple-choice questions”. Prospective applicants from state schools may not receive such tailored training as those attending private schools. This could mean fewer trainees from lower socio-economic backgrounds passing the SQE and being recruited. This will be particularly problematic for firms affiliated with organisations such as Aspiring Solicitors, Rare Recruitment or upReach, which all aim to increase diversity in the legal profession.

The SQE is also unable to be tailored towards certain practice areas, in contrast to the LPC with its elective modules. For example, “Wills and Administration of Estates and Trusts” is a tested module on SQE1, whereas on the LPC, most elements are taught under the optional elective “Private Client Law and Practice”. Another example is criminal law which will now be compulsory as part of SQE1 when it was previously bundled with another topic. Therefore, students are much more likely to be answering questions on topics which are not relevant to their later practice.

However, projected failure rates should not be overstated. Firms like Linklaters have a much lower LPC fail rate of 0-2%. Also, like any exam, the SQE is adjustable; the syllabus, assessment methods and success criteria can be changed to “reach an equilibrium that will be sufficiently demanding … but fair,” says Sarah Hutchinson, managing director of BARBRI.

Firms will, of course, need to redesign their training and preparation programmes for current and future trainees. However, given the SQE’s similarity to a law degree, the main difference may be that non-law students will need extra prep time. There is also scope for “more creative” training programmes which encompass legal tech, according to Morette Jackson, ULaw’s director of business development. Finally, any additional cost to law firms is likely to be mitigated by the much reduced SQE course fees of £3,000 to £4,500.

Calling the SQE a “super-exam” is likely to cause fear and panic, but the success rate will depend a lot more on the quality of training rather than the difficulty of the exam itself. However, firms should keep a record of the diversity of SQE-passers, perhaps offering extra MCQ training for underrepresented groups.

Report written by Arun Allen

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