The pressure on the SRA over its new ‘super-exam’ has intensified in recent weeks, with the Junior Lawyers Division warning that it could damage the credibility of the profession and the Legal Services Board listing a number of concerns that the SRA needs to address before it gets approval.
The Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) has warned that the proposed SQE “poses significant risks to the standing and credibility (both domestically and internationally) of the solicitor qualification”.
The warning came in a letter at the beginning of November to the Legal Services Board (LSB), the regulator which needs to give final sign off to the new exam before it comes into force in September 2021.
In a letter sent to the LSB’s Chair Dr Helen Phillips, the JLD’s Amy Clowrey said that by moving away “from the academic, essay-based means of assessment of legal knowledge” to multiple-choice questions in SQE1 would negatively affect “the quality of people entering the profession”.
In her letter, Clowrey referred to criticism of the SQE raised by Clyde & Co, Linklaters and the University of Oxford in a consultation about the exam. Clyde & Co is on record as saying it has “strong concerns” about whether legal knowledge can be tested by multiple-choice questions and fears individuals entering the profession “may do so knowing substantially less law”.
Similar reservations have been expressed by the University of Oxford, which said multiple-choice questions are “of no value in determining whether an individual would be able to give competent advice in situations in which the law is unclear”.
Linklaters has been even more damning, saying: “We fundamentally disagree that the proposed SQE is a robust and effective measure of competence.”
Key issues the SRA needs to address
It seems these criticisms are not falling on death ears, as the LSB has itself expressed some disquiet about the SQE. The LSB has said it will be sending to the SRA a list of “key issues” that need to be addressed in its second application, which is due in July/August next year.
Chris Nichols, the LSB’s Director of Regulation and Policy, has said it is important that the SQE provides “a fully valid assessment of competence and that quality, and perceptions of quality, are not compromised”.
Nichols has also responded to previous worries expressed by the JLD and others about students being mistreated during their qualifying work experience noting that there is an “overall lack of any quality assurance of the process by the SRA”.
Dr Helen Phillips has herself chimed in, saying: “The board is aware of the strength of feeling around the SRA’s introduction of the SQE, and we were pleased to have an opportunity to discuss the next steps for the process. We know that there remain a number of concerns for stakeholders, and our overarching desire to proactively gather and understand such views carries over into any discussion of the SQE.”
Will the SQE be too difficult?
Meanwhile, Linklaters has also questioned whether the new exam is going to be too difficult, and warns that if it is, there will be knock-on effects for firms in terms of both recruitment and reputational damage.
Linklaters’ Head of Global Training, Patrick McCann, has said: “The SRA is basing SQE1 on the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme and that has something like a 50% fail rate. Currently, the law degree fail rate is about 2% and the Legal Practice Course fail rate is about 10-20%, and for firms like Linklaters it’s 0-2%.”
McCann has said a high fail rate would cause huge complications for City firms: “We recruit for spaces and if we’re left with spaces because our recruitment round doesn’t make it through that causes all sorts of problems.”
He also fears that “the reputational risk if you’re the law firm that doesn’t get students through the exams is going to be huge”.
But Sarah Hutchinson, managing director of legal education provider Barbri has played down these anxieties and said: “Typically when a new exam is introduced, you would expect the examiner to give the benefit of the doubt to the students and it is not in the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s best interests to produce dramatic fail rates. After all, they want the SQE to succeed.”
It seems certain that analysis of the new SQE (both positive and negative) will continue to play out in the legal press as we head towards 2021. We’ll update you with the latest news as and when it comes in.