The Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) marks its first year, and the legal profession is keen to evaluate its impact on aspiring solicitors. With over 3,000 candidates participating in the first year across 42 countries, the overall implementation has been successful. However, stakeholders' views on the SQE remain mixed, and concerns about clarity, affordability, and diversity linger.
SQE and QWE: The SQE is a two-part assessment that tests candidates' legal knowledge (SQE1) and the application of legal knowledge and skills (SQE2). In addition to passing these exams, candidates must complete two years of qualifying work experience (QWE) to become a solicitor. This new path to qualification aims to create a more consistent and accessible route for aspiring solicitors.
The SRA commissioned a suite of reports reviewing the first year of the SQE. It has interpreted the results as showing “that overall implementation of the new assessment has gone well.” The reports include an annual review from the SQE's assessment provider, Kaplan, and by the SQE's Independent Reviewer. The reports cover the first year of assessments, in which there were three sittings - two for SQE1, which tests candidates' legal knowledge, and one for SQE2, testing both the application of legal knowledge and skills.
Clarity of Expectations: While many respondents found the expectations of the SQE clear, some desired more detailed assessment specifications and additional sample questions to better understand the process.
Testing the Right Knowledge and Skills: Stakeholders expressed varying opinions on whether the SQE tests the appropriate knowledge and skills. Some candidates praised the assessment's thoroughness and challenge, while others argued the exam content is too broad, making it difficult to remember all the required legal knowledge.
Promoting Diversity: Opinions are mixed on whether the SQE will help remove barriers to entering the solicitor profession and promote diversity. Some respondents believe the SQE has made the path to qualification more accessible. However, others point out that promoting diversity and removing barriers requires a collective effort from various stakeholders. Concerns persist about the combined cost of training and assessment acting as a barrier for some candidates.
Affordability of the SQE and Preparatory Courses: The affordability of the SQE and preparatory courses remains a concern for many respondents. A significant portion disagreed that the exam fees are reasonable, with candidates expressing the strongest dissatisfaction. The combined cost of the SQE and preparatory training is another point of contention, with some arguing that it is similar to the cost of an LPC.
Trust and Confidence in the SQE: Trust and confidence in the SQE varied among stakeholders. Some respondents reported increased trust due to the exams' difficulty, better understanding of the SQE, and its practical nature. However, others cited decreased trust due to issues with operational delivery, exam fees, elements of the exam itself (e.g., multiple-choice questions), and concerns about disparities in pass rates between candidates from different ethnic backgrounds.
The first year of the SQE has shown promising results in terms of implementation and candidate participation, but there is still room for improvement. Addressing issues of clarity, affordability, and diversity will be crucial to ensuring the long-term success of the SQE and its ability to serve as a fair, valid assessment for aspiring solicitors. Stakeholders must also work together to make the path to qualification more accessible and equitable for all candidates.