The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) could ask law firms to pay for their own research and writing skills tests when hiring trainees, instead of testing them in stage 1 of the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), it has emerged.
Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA, said this was one option being considered in the wake of the results from pilot tests earlier this year , which were regarded as successful apart from the skills element, which “did not work”.
The SQE, the new centralised assessment for qualifying solicitors, is due to be introduced in autumn 2021.
SQE 1 aims to test students on their ‘functioning legal knowledge’, based on the core areas of law taught on law degree courses and the legal practice course, combined with a test of research and writing skills.
SQE 2 aims to test skills such as client interviewing, advocacy, case and matter analysis, legal research and written advice, and drafting.
Ms Brannan said she wanted to hear from solicitors why skills should be tested at SQE 1 as well as SQE 2. The original plans for SQE 1 consisted only of multiple-choice questions but skills tests were included because law firms wanted them.
She said one option was to “ramp up” the skills element in SQE 1, increasing the number of assessments from 12 to 16. She warned that this would involve a “substantial cost”.
An alternative, which would also make SQE 1 more expensive, would be to include a “discursive writing” element alongside the multiple-choice questions.
A further possibility was to ask law firms to buy a research and writing test which they could incorporate into their recruitment processes, solving the problem of trainees arriving without the skills their employers wanted.
Speaking on a Law Society podcast  to Alan East, chair of the society’s education and training committee, Ms Brannan said further options included putting all the skills tests in SQE 2 or, confusingly, holding the SQE 2 tests before SQE 1.
Whatever happens to the SQE, the SRA has agreed, again after pressure from the profession, that qualifying solicitors will need to have at least two years of work experience.
Ms Brannan said that, if skills tests were included in SQE 1, “we need to be sure we’re not putting a barrier in the way of people acquiring the work experience through which they could develop the necessary skills” for practice as a solicitor.
“We need to be clear about why we’re assessing skills, and what the impact is on costs and fairness to candidates.”
Ms Brannan said she would expect that average marks in the first real SQE 1 to be higher than in the pilot, where candidates achieved an average of around 50%, as students would be more motivated and better prepared.
She defended the use of multiple choice or ‘single best answer’ questions, which had been shown to be able to test cognitive skills like analysis and problem-solving.
“Solicitors need to be able to categorise the nature of legal problems and work with the relevant legal principles on how they apply to the context and what the decisions and next steps should be.”
Ms Brannan said “all of these elements” could be tested through multiple choice questions.