Representatives for junior lawyers have slammed the SRA for giving the go-ahead for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) to start in September 2021.
The Law Society body which represents junior lawyers, the JLD, said the SRA's proposed exam* will "damage both our reputation internationally and water down the quality of the profession". It criticised the SRA's decision to drop the requirement for a law degree/GDL and to only use multiple-choice questions to assess legal knowledge under the SQE1 exams.
Multiple-choice questions offered no insight into how a candidate analyses information, applies it to a problem and communicates their answer, the JLD told RollOnFriday. It raised similar concerns last year after the SRA revealed results from the SQE pilot.
Julie Brannan, Director of Education and Training at the SRA, defended multiple choice questions as "a tried and tested way of rigorously assessing candidates...used in medicine and accountancy, as well as in legal exams, including the LPC, BPTC and US Multistate Bar Exams.”
“They are not about regurgitating knowledge, but testing the application of fundamental legal principles," Brannan told RollOnFriday, adding that the SQE questions would be "drafted and reviewed by solicitors” and the format had been approved by an independent reviewer following the pilot.
The traditional approach of sitting separate exams for each subject will also be scrapped, and instead SQE1 will comprise two tests of 180 multiple choice questions each. Critics have argued that such a structure means a candidate will be able to perform badly in one area of law (e.g. contract law), but pass SQE1 overall if their answers in other areas pull up their overall mark.
Brannan dismissed that concern, explaining that analysis from the SRA's pilots involving more than 480 candidates "showed the risks around some candidates passing the SQE, while doing badly in particular areas, was low." She also said SQE1 would avoid the pitfalls of written exams by ensuring that a candidate understood a broad range of fundamental legal principles and would be unable to "question spot" and "get lucky if the right subjects come up".
Written skills will be tested in SQE2, the practical legal skills section, which is set to include 12 written exercises such as drafting, research and case analysis, and can only be undertaken once SQE1 is passed. Critics have asked whether it is right that a candidate with poor writing skills could rack up unnecessary costs by passing SQE1 having answered multiple-choice questions, only to fail SQE2 due to its written element.
“An early skills test could exclude capable candidates, who with more training and professional experience, could develop the right skills to become good solicitors", said Brannan. "We want to make sure everyone has a fair shot at qualifying, but ultimately nobody will qualify if they can’t show they have the right legal skills.”
The JLD told RollOnFriday it will be calling for a delay in the SQE's implementation until changes are made. The super exam is still subject to approval from the Legal Services Board.
* The SQE is set to replace the current training regime, replacing the requirement for a training contract, the GDL and the LPC. Instead aspiring solicitors will need the following: (i) a degree or "equivalent qualification" which can be in a non-law subject (ii) pass legal examinations SQE1 (legal knowledge) and SQE2 (practical legal skills) (iii) two years' work experience, which doesn't have to be in a law firm but could be in a law centre or a law clinic (iv) pass a "character and suitability test" (no record of dishonesty etc).