The (just) majority that passed, are one step closer to obtaining a diploma in the form of a cute animal which makes everyone 'SQEEEEEE!'
Law firms have been urged not to rescind job offers for incoming trainees who fail to pass the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE).
The City of London Law Society (CLLS) training committee held a meeting last week with 16 firms and three legal education providers, to discuss how to support any future trainees and solicitor apprentices who fail to pass SQE1 at the first attempt.
The CLLS posted a note of the meeting which called for a "supportive, understanding approach" from firms taking into consideration that SQE is a "new, little-known assessment regime".
The meeting came about following the recent announcements of low pass rates for SQE. In the latest SRA report, published this week, only 51% of candidates passed the January 2023 SQE1 assessment, making them eligible for the second part, SQE2.
The CLLS committee pointed out that the LPC (the previous route to becoming a solicitor) had a "very high" pass rate among City-sponsored students "typically above 95%". Although the LPC did not always have glowing pass rates for all candidates - for example, the overall pass rate in 2019 was 58%.
A source also told RollOnFriday that they understood one explanation for the current low pass rate, is that the cohorts of people who have sat SQE1 so far were made up of a lot of overseas solicitors, paralegals. And that "realistically very few people on a traditional route, including anyone with City firm training contracts, will actually have taken SQE1" in the latest stats.
In 2020, the Legal Services Board gave the green light for the GDL and the LPC, to be replaced by the Solicitors Qualifying Examination.
The examination component has done away with separate exams for each subject area, as was the case in the LPC. Instead, SQE1 comprises of multiple choice questions designed to assess legal knowledge, while SQE2 assesses practical legal skills such as drafting, research and case analysis in 12 written exercises.
Candidates will not need a law degree, or even a non-law degree, if they have an "equivalent qualification" or an apprenticeship comprising "equivalent experience".
In a significant change from the old system, the two years of 'qualifying work experience' (QWE) for candidates does not have to be completed as a block two year training contract with a single provider. Instead, candidates can work at up to four appropriate places, which will include student law clinics and pro bono projects.
Lending further flexibility to the process, unlike the LPC where candidates had to do exams before a training contract, the assessments and QWE can come in any order. So candidates may wish to get some work experience under their belts before choosing to sit the assessment exams.
However, in the latest results, candidates who had undertaken (QWE) recorded a pass rate of 49% on SQE1, lower than the pass rate of 55% for those who hadn't undertaken QWE.
In its meeting, the CLLS committee noted this difference in approach meant that "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’".
The assessment is a closed book exam, and the CLLS committee said that a number of 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 committee commented that the format for SQE1 assessment was "gruelling" with some candidates experiencing "IT issues at some assessment centres, and delays waiting for these to be remedied." Each paper is five hours long with a short break, and the CLLS said it was reported that "some candidates had not been allowed to take water into assessment centres (let alone food)". Candidates had previously blasted one particular test centre for an exam fiasco.
The committee urged firms to consider deferrals for their future trainees who fail SQE1, taking into consideration matters including "personal and other extenuating circumstances" and distinguishing between "marginal fails and more significant fails".
The CLLS report commented that rescinding training contracts could have "potential negative publicity" for firms.
Patrick McCann, director of learning at Linklaters and chair of the CLLS training committee, posted on LinkedIn that "much more data" is needed "before we can be in any way sure that first-time failure is indicative of lack of trainee solicitor-capability."
"The assessment is largely unvalidated, tests performance with a methodology unfamiliar to nearly all candidates, is producing unexpected outcomes for some," said McCann. "I’d urge understanding, support and lassitude. I hope more guidance will be forthcoming soon but — for now — no sudden negative decisions, please.”
The SRA's report provided pass rate data based on undergraduate degree grades: 73% of candidates with a 1st class degree passed SQE1, compared with 52% of those with a 2:1 degree, 23% with a 2:2 and 13% with a 3rd.
The report also gave stats for different ethnic groups: 63% of white candidates passed SQE1, compared with 47% of asian candidates, 29% of black candidates and 38% for other ethnic groups.
The CLLS committee said the SQE1 results revealed "an attainment gap between BME and other students" and that the SRA had commissioned Exeter University "to produce a study" (to be published) which would include "the differentiated attainment by ethnicity".