SQE “working well” as firms get to grips with qualifying work experience

Legal study: SQE1 pass rates around the 50% mark

Around 2,750 students who took one or both parts of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) have now qualified, new Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) figures have shown.

The regulator reported that the SQE is functioning well as the numbers taking it ramp up, while research into qualifying work experience (QWE) found that most students obtained more than the minimum two years.

The SQE was introduced in September 2021 with transitional arrangements for those going down the legal practice course route – SQE1 tests candidates’ legal knowledge, and SQE2 their application of that knowledge and their skills.

The second annual SQE report, published today, covered two sittings of each in 2022/23, involving more than 8,000 people. As evidence of how take-up is growing, almost 6,500 candidates took SQE1 in January 2024 alone.

To qualify, would-be solicitors need to pass the SQE and complete at least two years of QWE; SRA research indicates that the majority do all or some of their QWE before taking the SQE.

By the end of February 2024, 710 solicitors had qualified using the standard SQE route, 130 came through the solicitor apprenticeship route, while a further 1,900 who were already qualified as a lawyer in England and Wales or another jurisdiction were admitted. This latter group does not need QWE.

A paper before the most recent meeting of the SRA board said: “The analyses show the assessments have performed well. The assessments are valid and reliable, successfully differentiating between candidates who are competent and those who are not. The independent reviewer’s report supports this conclusion.”

The pass rates for the two SQE1 sittings were 51% and 53%, figures pulled down a little by resitting candidates, who typically perform less well than first-timers. It was the same pattern for the SQE2, where the pass rates were 71% and 77%.

SQE2 pass rates were higher still for candidates who had first taken and passed SQE1, at 83% and 89%.

The report said the higher pass rate for SQE2 was “expected given the SQE2 eligibility requirement to have qualification-level functioning legal knowledge” before taking it.

Other emerging trends include that candidates who are not qualified lawyers perform better than those who are, those with higher university degree classifications outperform those with lower ones, solicitor apprentices do better than average – 97% passed SQE2 in April 2023, for example, compared to 75% of non-apprentices – younger candidates perform better than older ones, and men perform do better than women in SQE1, with the position reversed for SQE2.

The long-standing differential outcomes by ethnicity, which date back to the legal practice course, continues, with research on this commissioned by the SRA due to be published by early summer.

The SRA received 280 responses to its survey on QWE, 171 from candidates, 61 from law firms and the rest from other organisations.

Forty-one per cent of candidates said it was easy or very easy to secure QWE, an increase of 10 percentage points compared to 2022, although 20% said it was difficult or very difficult. The most selected reasons by the latter group from a given list were competition for QWE, a lack of knowledge among legal service providers, and the difficulty of finding QWE in their local area.

Nine in 10 only undertook paid QWE, a 13 percentage point increase from the 2022 survey.

Just over 80% had undertaken more than the required two years, while nearly 70% said they had or were doing it in one placement.

As in 2022, approximately 90% of candidates who had completed some QWE said they were very satisfied or satisfied with it, with a similar number happy with the supervision they received and agreeing that their QWE had helped them develop the competences they needed to practise effectively as a solicitor.

Employers said QWE helped to develop existing employees such as paralegals, was simpler to provide than a training contract, allowed them to provide work experience to aspiring solicitors for the first time, and did not require them to assess competence to practise as a solicitor.

Equally, the biggest challenge was not being able to employ any or all their paralegals as solicitors after confirming their work experience with the SRA as QWE.

Around 20% said they did not provide any preparatory SQE training in their QWE schemes, a figure the SRA said it would monitor to see if was part of a wider trend. The majority covered the costs of sitting the SQE.

Just under 40% of organisations said they did not require candidates to pass either SQE1 or SQE2 before beginning QWE, but 20% expected them first to pass both; 10% said they required candidates to pass only SQE1.

There have been reports of some law firms dismissing staff who fail SQE1. This is not a regulatory issue, but speaking at a media briefing yesterday, SRA head of education Julie Swan encouraged candidates to read “the small print” of the package they were accepting when they took sponsorship for the SQE.

SRA chief executive Paul Philip sad: “As numbers taking the SQE route continue to increase, we, and the public and wider profession, can have confidence that newly qualified solicitors meet the high standards that we all expect of them.”

The SRA also announced a 5% increase in the SQE fees from September to £1,888 for SQE 1 and £2,902 for SQE2.

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