The Covid-19 crisis will not stop the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in September 2021, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has decided.
Nine years after starting the reform process by commissioning the Legal Education and Training Review, the regulator today published the final design of the SQE ahead of its application for approval from the Legal Services Board (LSB) going in next month, after any tweaks are made following feedback.
At a meeting last week, the SRA board agreed that the final design met its key criteria of being “valid, reliable, manageable and cost effective”.
In March 2018, the LSB approved  the SRA’s initial application setting out the framework for the SQE, but last year it made clear that its final sign-off was not a foregone conclusion  – there remain many critics of the reforms, particularly among legal academics.
Under the blueprint, all those wishing to qualify as a solicitor will need to pass the SQE, as well as hold a degree or equivalent qualification or experience, complete a two-year period of qualifying work experience, and pass a suitability test.
The aim is to ensure that, on day one of their work as a solicitor, newly qualifieds have the knowledge and skills they need to practise competently, all tested against the same standard.
The SRA said: “Focusing our regulation on end-point standards, rather than specifying pathways, encourages a wide range of training options, including online, part time, work-based training or various combinations.
“Candidates can choose the option which best suits their circumstances. Early market indications suggest that a wide variety of training models are in development.
“The SQE provides a single, consistent standard for all candidates, no matter how they have trained. It enables those, such as apprentices, who have come through new routes to be assessed on a level playing field with other candidates who have trained in more traditional ways.”
The SQE will be single assessment for qualifying solicitors in two parts. SQE1, which will be in the form of two 180-question multiple-choice assessments, will test candidates’ functioning legal knowledge covering core subjects currently taught on law degree courses and the legal practice course.
SQE2 will involve between 15 and 18 practical legal skills assessments, held over a number of days, covering client interviewing, advocacy, case and matter analysis, legal research, written advice and drafting sampled across five practice contexts: criminal litigation, dispute resolution, property practice, wills and probate, and business.
Issues of ethics and professional conduct will be woven into both.
Following a pilot of SQE2, the SRA announced on Friday that it had decided to make it a uniform exam, rather than allowing students electives.
The pilots showed that white candidates “significantly out-performed” those of a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background – but an updated equality, diversity and inclusion risk assessment also published today said “we have found no evidence that any of these assessment methods used in the SQE are intrinsically biased or that the outcomes are worse than those seen in the current LPC system”.
The SRA has put a series of measures in place to address the issue, such as recruiting and training a diverse group of assessors, and it will soon publish an updated report from the independent Bridge Group, which in 2017 reported  that the reforms were “not a panacea for diversity” but could make a “significant contribution”.
Work experience need not be in the form of the current training contract and there is no prescribed order other than SQE1 must be taken before SQE2.
The SRA’s timetable would see the first SQE1 assessment run in autumn 2021 and the first SQE2 in spring 2022. They will be available in Welsh too.
The regulator said it “carefully considered” whether to delay for a year because of Covid-19, but concluded: “There is a clear public interest in terms of assurance of competence and public protection for the SQE to be introduced as soon as possible and we see no reason to delay the introduction of the SQE.
“We know that some universities and training providers have suggested that the Covid-19 outbreak is affecting their SQE preparations. However, the training market has already started to adapt to support the SQE and others are keen to proceed.
“We are confident that training will be available to support the first cohorts of SQE candidates. This does not require all training providers to be ready from 2021: individual organisations can introduce new SQE programmes when it best suits their particular circumstances. We expect the training market to continue to develop after the introduction of the SQE.”
Some 33 organisations have so far joined the SQE list of training providers on the SRA website – including new entrants such as Barbri  – while at least eight universities are already making plans to introduce SQE1-inclusive law degrees.
“Early indications suggest that both SQE1 and SQE2 preparatory courses will be substantially shorter than the LPC,” the SRA said.
Solicitor apprenticeship numbers are growing too – the first 25 solicitor apprentices started in September 2016, and there are now over 500 apprentices.
The SRA said it was seeing “significant investment and innovation” in preparation for the SQE, “such as new ed-tech platforms which enable training providers to offer online training tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of individual learners”.
Law firms have also unveiled new training programmes, such as a 30-month SQE-inclusive graduate solicitor apprentice training contract recently announced by City firm Kennedys , and three-year SQE-inclusive training contracts from Deloitte Legal .
The cost of taking the SQE will be between £3,000 and £4,500 – the final figure has still to be confirmed and does not include the cost of study. The SRA has contractual control over what the provider, Kaplan, can charge, while it is “putting measures in place” to make sure that candidates do not have to pay VAT on their SQE fees.
“Overall, it is likely that when the SQE is introduced, there will be training options which, when combined with the cost of assessment, are cheaper than the current cost of the LPC (up to about £17,000) and the professional skills course (which costs about another £1,500),” the SRA said.
There will be initial evaluations of the SQE after two and then four years, but a full evaluation cannot properly be done until five to seven years after its introduction.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “Extensive input, expert and independent review, and careful testing means we are confident that we have developed a rigorous, fair, world-class assessment for all aspiring solicitors, regardless of background or route taken.
“The SQE will provide greater assurance for the public and employers that qualifying solicitors have met the consistent, high standards they would expect.”
Peter Houillon, CEO of Kaplan Professional UK and Ireland, said: “The design of the SQE is based on 18 months of consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, two pilots involving over 480 candidates, analysis of [Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme] data involving a total of over 16,000 candidate attempts across 19 multiple choice tests and 18 legal skills assessments, as well as world-leading psychometric expertise in professional assessment leading to licensure including licensure in law.
“As a result, we are confident that the SQE will be reliable, accurate, valid, cost effective and manageable, reaching the high-quality standards that consumers, candidates and the profession rightly expect.”
Geoff Coombes, an independent reviewer appointed after an open recruitment process to review the pilots, said: “The planning, operation and analyses of the pilots were generally of high quality and helpfully contributed to the evidence needed to finalise the SQE design.
“My conclusion is that the final design is best placed to provide a valid, fair and reliable assessment. As with any new qualification it will be important to review and continuously improve this new design once operating.”
The SRA’s work has been led by director of education and training Julie Brannan.