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Firms urged not to abandon SQE failures

By John Hyde >>

(27 March 2023)

Law firms have been urged to keep faith with aspiring solicitors even if they fail the new qualifying test on their first attempt.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority revealed earlier this month that the pass rate for SQE1 was 53% across the first year of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination – well down on the pass rates for the LPC which was previously the main route into the profession.

There is now concern that employers may consider rescinding job offers to candidates who failed. 

But critics say the test – which the SRA insists works well – is not necessarily a true reflection of an individual’s qualities or legal aptitude.

The City of London Law Society training committee met with 16 firms as well as HR and training professionals to discuss a response to the SQE annual report. The response – posted here on LinkedIn – calls for a ‘supportive, understanding approach’ which takes into account that this is a ‘new, little-known assessment regime’.

The committee points out that the LPC pass rate among City-sponsored students had typically been above 95%, where providers set their own assessments in accordance with SRA specifications.

The committee’s response said: ‘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’.

‘Although the SRA stated that the exam would assess students’ knowledge of general legal principles, some candidates had reported that some of the questions were rather esoteric and not things that a day-one solicitor could be expected to know without looking up.’

The format of the SQE1 is a multi-choice exam, with two papers taken across two days. Each paper is five hours long with a short break in the middle.

The committee said the format raised certain diversity issues, including for neurodiverse candidates.

The environment was described as ‘gruelling’, with candidates having to travel long distances to test centres, IT issues reported at some venues, and reports some candidates were not able to take water in with them. The committee said the stress caused by the assessment environment could harm candidates’ performance.

Firms are being urged to consider each candidate’s circumstances individually, taking into account personal and extenuating circumstances for each test and whether the failure was marginal. A deferral could be considered, as well as ongoing funding of students who are waiting to take resits.

Patrick McCann, director of learning at magic circle firm Linklaters and chair of the training committee, urged firms to keep hold of their talent.

‘We need much more data before we can be in any way sure that first-time failure is indicative of lack of trainee solicitor-capability,’ he added. ‘The assessment is largely unvalidated, tests performance with a methodology unfamiliar to nearly all candidates, is producing unexpected outcomes for some. I’d urge understanding, support and lassitude.’

(The Law Society Gazette)