This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Summer 2023 (Vol. 92, No. 2), pp. 18–23.By Julie SwanIn 2013, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the regulatory body for solicitors in England and Wales, embarked on a thorough review of its education and training requirements for solicitors. The review, which it called Training for Tomorrow, culminated in the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which launched in September 2021.
The genesis for this reform process was an independent review of the education and training of lawyers in England and Wales, the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), which began in 2011 and was completed in 2013.
The SQE was introduced after many years of debate on the best way to secure a consistent standard of entry to the profession, encourage innovation in legal education and training, and remove unnecessary regulatory barriers to qualification. It marked a major change to the previous qualification regime that had been in place since 1993.
This article begins with a brief review of the previous regime and the SRA’s objectives in reforming it, followed by an in-depth look at the SQE: its design and delivery, candidates’ performance, training market developments, and the challenges and benefits of introducing a single licensing exam.
Objectives in Reforming the Licensure System
The SRA previously authorized a range of education and training providers, including universities and law firms, to deliver one or more of the three stages of education and training required to qualify as a solicitor:
- the academic stage—a law degree, or a conversion course for graduates whose degree was not in law;
- the vocational stage—a one-year full-time (or equivalent) Legal Practice Course (LPC); and
- the training stage—a two-year (or equivalent) period of recognized training undertaken in legal practice.
At each stage, the provider assessed the student’s or the trainee’s performance to decide whether they could progress. Over 100 course providers and several thousand law firms and other providers of legal services were involved with these decisions. Ultimately, the final approval prior to admission rested with the organizations in which the trainees completed the practical stage of the qualification, which were required to confirm to the SRA that their trainees met the standards mandated; however, with so many providers it was not possible to ensure a consistent standard of approval.
LETR indicated that having so many organizations responsible for the training and assessment of prospective solicitors made it challenging to ensure a common, consistent standard. Further, relying on input methods—such as a specified period of study, qualifications to be attained, and time served in legal employment—does not necessarily ensure the desired outputs, that is, the quality of legal services provided to consumers. LETR also indicated that the historical focus on regulating the pathways to qualification, rather than focusing on the end-point standards to be achieved, resulted in a rigid structure that restricted innovation and access.
The SRA changed the existing licensure approach to address LETR’s findings—namely to
- address the risk that different providers were applying different assessment standards—by introducing a central assessment of a candidate’s competence to practice as a solicitor;
- encourage innovative approaches to the education and training of future solicitors by removing existing prescriptive requirements;
- allow individuals to choose the best way for them to prepare for the central assessment, given their experience, learning styles, personal circumstances, work, and other commitments and funding options; and
- remove any unnecessary barriers to qualification, which could limit the growth and diversity of the profession.
The SRA published information about the planned reforms in 2013. In 2015 it published its Statement of Solicitor Competence, which addresses ethics, professionalism, and judgment; technical legal practice; working with other people; and managing oneself and one’s work.1 It then embarked on an extended period of consultation and piloting and selected an assessment provider to develop and deliver the new central assessment.
Design and Delivery of the SQE
The SQE has two parts. SQE1 was available for the first time in November 2021, and SQE2 was available for the first time in April 2022. Candidates who wish to take the SQE must hold a degree or an equivalent level of qualification. The degree or the alternative qualification can be in law, but that is not required. As well as passing both parts of the SQE, candidates must gain two years (or the part-time equivalent) of qualifying work experience and meet the SRA’s character and suitability test.
The SRA appointed Kaplan UK to design and deliver both parts of the SQE. SQE1 tests candidates’ functioning legal knowledge (FLK)—their knowledge and understanding of law and legal practice. It covers
- Business Law and Practice, Dispute Resolution, Contract, Tort, Legal System of England and Wales, and Constitutional and Administrative Law and EU Law and Legal Services (FLK 1), and
- Property Practice, Wills and the Administration of Estates, Solicitors Accounts, Land Law, Trusts, and Criminal Law and Practice (FLK 2).
SQE1 comprises two separate assessments taken on two days. One assesses FLK 1, the other FLK 2. Each assessment comprises 180 single best answer multiple-choice questions.
Candidates must take both assessments in the same sitting. If they pass one but fail the other, they need only retake the assessment they failed. Candidates are allowed three attempts at each of the FLK 1 and FLK 2 assessments. They must pass both parts of SQE1 and pass SQE2 within a six-year period.
SQE2 assesses candidates’ skills in client interview and attendance note/legal analysis,2 advocacy, case and matter analysis, legal research, legal writing, and legal drafting. Candidates’ ability to apply their knowledge of the law and legal practice is also assessed in SQE2. SQE2 assesses: Criminal Litigation (including advising clients at the police station); Dispute Resolution; Property Practice; Wills and Intestacy, Probate Administration and Practice; and Business Organizations Rules and Procedures (including money laundering and financial services).
Evaluations of ethics and professional conduct pervade both SQE1 and SQE2.
Candidates are assessed on the knowledge that a solicitor on day one of practice is expected to have without access to books or other resources.There are 16 different assessments (referred to as assessment “stations”) for SQE2. Four of the 16 are oral assessments, and 12 are written assessments. The oral assessments take place over two consecutive half-days; the written assessments take place over three consecutive half-days. SQE2 is treated as a holistic assessment. A candidate must achieve the overall passing score. It is a compensatory assessment, so a strong performance in one part of the assessment can offset a poorer performance in another part. A candidate who does not achieve the passing score must retake the whole SQE2 assessment. Candidates are allowed three attempts at SQE2.
The written assessments for both SQE1 and SQE2 are completed on a computer and taken either at an established test center provided by Pearson Vue or at a temporary test center set up for the purpose. Pearson Vue provides the assessment platform, which is the same regardless of the center at which candidates are assessed. All candidates take the same written assessments at the same time.
The written SQE1 assessments have been taken in 59 countries so far, including in the United States (in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New York). The oral assessments can be taken only in England or Wales.
Both SQE1 and SQE2 are closed-book assessments. Candidates are assessed on the knowledge that a solicitor on day one of practice is expected to have without access to books or other resources. Candidates are provided with any additional materials needed to respond to the SQE2 tasks.
The SQE1 assessments are computer-scored. The SQE2 assessments are mainly scored by solicitors. Candidates’ client interviewing skills are scored by the trained actors who play the parts of clients in the role-play exercises.
SQE1 is offered twice a year. SQE2 will be available on three occasions in 2023 and on four occasions a year from 2024.
Reasonable adjustments are made for candidates with disabilities. The most frequent accommodation to date has been the provision of extra time.
Scoring and Candidate Performance
The SQE1 passing score is set using the Modified Angoff method. This involves a panel of qualified solicitors who are familiar with the typical competence of solicitors on their first day of practice and with the Statement of Solicitor Competence. They consider, for each question on the assessment, how many out of 10 competent day-one solicitors would answer the question correctly.
The passing score for SQE2 is set using the borderline regression method, supplemented by other recognized methods as appropriate. In addition to scoring a candidate’s response, each examiner also provides an overall “standard-setting” grade of pass, marginal pass, marginal fail, or fail. This standard-setting grade does not count as part of the candidate’s score but is used to set a standard for each different part of the assessment. The passing score for the overall assessment is determined by summating the nominal passing standards for each different part of the assessment and is adjusted for measurement error to provide a high level of confidence in the outcomes. A candidate’s score is the mean of their scores across the 16 different assessments.
The pass marks for the three SQE1 assessments administered so far have been between 55% and 57%. The pass rates for those sitting both FLK 1 and FLK 2 for the first time have been between 53% and 55%.
For reasons of manageability, not all candidates can take the oral assessments at the same time. To protect the integrity of the oral assessments, different tasks are used on each of the different assessment days. The passing scores for the assessments are set independently to iron out any differences in the demand of the tasks.
The overall pass rates for the two SQE2 assessments administered so far have been 77% and 71%.3 Candidates can only sit for SQE2 if they have passed SQE1. There is a strong positive correlation between performance on SQE1 and SQE2. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the pass rates for SQE2 have been notably higher than those for SQE1, as weaker candidates who fail SQE1 are not permitted to take SQE2.
The assessment provider, Kaplan UK, undertakes extensive psychometric analysis of the assessments. It has found no evidence that any aspect of the assessment is systematically biased in favor or against certain candidate groups. Nevertheless, there have been some differences in some candidate groups’ performance.
The clearest predictor of performance is a candidate’s prior academic attainment—candidates with higher degree classifications perform better than those with lower degree classifications. Broadly, men and women have performed similarly, with men outperforming women in some administrations, with this reversed for other administrations. Candidates with disabilities have performed better than other candidates in some administrations but, again, this has been reversed for other administrations.
The most notable variations in performance have been for candidates of different ethnicities. White candidates have generally had the highest pass rates (although for some administrations candidates of mixed ethnicity have, overall, outperformed White candidates), and Black and Black British4 candidates have had the lowest pass rates. This was a feature of the previous licensure system, and the SRA has commissioned research to seek to understand why.5
Requirements for Lawyers from Other Jurisdictions
Lawyers qualified in jurisdictions other than England and Wales who want to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales must pass the SQE. Qualified lawyers have constituted a significant proportion of the early cohorts. Many such lawyers, however, including some qualified in the United States, have been granted an exemption from SQE2 because the SRA has determined that their legal practice rights and legal practice experience provide sufficient evidence they have demonstrated the knowledge and skills assessed in SQE2.
As well as the high proportion of lawyers qualified in other jurisdictions, candidates who had started to qualify under the previous arrangements and who are now qualifying under the transitional arrangements have taken the SQE. Candidates who started their legal education before the SQE was introduced are still able to qualify under the legacy arrangements. It is possible that, once in steady state and the background of the candidate cohorts change, the pass rates also change.
The Developing Training Market
Training providers have responded to the new freedom available to them to decide how best to design and deliver courses and materials to support candidates preparing for the SQE. They are recognizing their different experiences, learning styles, and work and family responsibilities and taking the affordability of their courses into account.
Training providers have responded to the new freedom available to them to decide how best to design and deliver courses and materials to support candidates preparing for the SQE.There is a good range of options for candidates, including standalone SQE preparatory courses and others that integrate SQE preparation with a wider academic program of study, leading to a master’s degree; in-person, remote, and hybrid provisions; and courses that cover either SQE1 or SQE2, those that cover both, and others that cover specific aspects of either, such as advocacy. There is also an option for candidates to buy materials to help their independent study. The range of fees and associated costs is wide.
Training providers are adapting from an approach in which they wrote and scored the assessments taken by their students, to one in which they prepare candidates to take assessments that are centrally set and scored. Training providers have welcomed feedback on how candidates, generally, have performed in the different areas of law and legal practice on which they are assessed.
To help candidates identify the options that are best for them, the SRA will, once sufficient data is available, publish information to show how candidates with different backgrounds and experiences with differing SQE preparation methods have performed. This data will also help providers understand how their preparation of candidates compares with that of others.
Reflections So Far
The SRA has a 10-year evaluation program to enable it to understand the extent to which the reforms’ objectives are being met and to identify any necessary modifications.
The SRA has a 10-year evaluation program to enable it to understand the extent to which the reforms’ objectives are being met and to identify any necessary modifications.The assessments have functioned well so far in terms of test reliability.6 The SQE is clearly demanding, as it should be for an assessment that acts as a gateway to the solicitors’ profession.
Pass rates on the LPC, the key qualification in the legacy route, varied widely. Some course providers had pass rates nearing 100% while other course providers’ pass rates were below 40%. The level of demand of the SQE is intentionally higher than that of the LPC, as the SQE is assessing a candidate’s readiness to practice as a solicitor, whereas the LPC was assessing a candidate’s readiness to become a trainee solicitor. It is not, therefore, possible directly to compare candidate success rates on the LPC with those of the SQE. However, the disparity in pass rates between candidates of different ethnicities, which was a feature of the previous qualification regime too, is troubling. Candidates who fail the exam the first time also, generally, have lower overall pass rates when they retake the exam, something those preparing candidates for the assessments and advising them on their readiness will need to watch.
The central exam provides a rich source of data on candidates’ backgrounds and performance, which the previous approach lacked. When the data bank is sufficiently large, multivariate analysis should provide additional insights into the factors that affect performance.
There are operational and logistical challenges to running a computer-based exam in many different locations across the world. Not everything has gone according to plan in each test center, but with such experiences comes learning about how to reduce the risk of any incidents and how to respond to protect the interests of candidates while maintaining the integrity of the assessments. There are also “back office” challenges to running a centralized registration system that experiences huge surges when the registration windows open and to forecasting the number of candidates for each administration.
The contribution of the solicitors’ profession to the successful delivery of the SQE has been key. Experienced practitioners write the questions needed to populate an extensive question bank for SQE1, prepare valid tasks for SQE2, score the assessments, and set the passing standard. Actors who take the role of a client in some of the oral SQE2 assessments need to be recruited, trained, and standardized. Every candidate’s identity needs to be checked at each exam administration, and candidates need to be supervised when taking both the written and oral assessments.
A valid and reliable assessment delivered with integrity cannot be provided cheaply. However, by no longer prescribing how candidates must prepare for qualification, new and more affordable routes to qualification are emerging. At the same time, the public can be assured that all are assessed in the same way and to a consistent standard, and that only those who have demonstrated their competence will be admitted as a solicitor.
- The SRA arrived at its Statement of Solicitor Competence by working with legal services consumers and representatives from the legal profession and academic community to identify the core skills and knowledge for practice as a solicitor. See Solicitors Regulation Authority, Statement of Solicitor Competence, available at https://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/resources/continuing-competence/cpd/competence-statement/. (Go back)
- Attendance note refers to the written record of discussions or events that occur during a client meeting. (Go back)
- For a statistical report published after each administration that includes data on the number of candidates, their performance in the assessments, and a demographic breakdown, see Solicitors Regulation Authority, SQE Reports, available at https://sqe.sra.org.uk/exam-arrangements/sqe-reports. (Go back)
- The Black British population is primarily made of descendants of immigrants from Africa and the West Indies who migrated to the United Kingdom beginning in the 1950s. (Go back)
- The SRA has published a literature review on the outcome of this first part of the research. See Solicitors Regulation Authority, “Literature Review Looks at Factors Influencing the Outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Candidates in Professional Assessment,” available at https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/press/review-influencing-outcomes-assessments/. (Go back)
- For a detailed analysis of how the assessments have functioned, see Solicitors Regulation Authority, “Solicitors Qualifying Examination Annual Report 2021/22” (16 March 2023), available at https://sqe.sra.org.uk/docs/default-source/pdfs/reports/sqe-annual-report-2022.pdf. (Go back)
For more about Training for Tomorrow, see this previous Bar Examiner article:
Julie Brannan, “The Reform of Education and Training Requirements for English and Welsh Solicitors,” 86(4) The Bar Examiner 17–27 (Winter 2017–2018).
Julie Swan is the Director of Education and Training for the Solicitors Regulation Authority. She took up that position in July 2022, having previously been Deputy Chief Regulator and Executive Director of General Qualifications at Ofqual, the qualifications regulator for England.
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