Law school heads react to early SQE results

legal cheek speaks with key players in legal education to understand what last week’s results announcement means for students and the wider profession

The results of the first Lawyers Qualifying Examination (SQE) were released by the regulator last week, with just over half (53%) of the 1,090 candidates receiving news that they had passed.

The SQE is a sea change in the way prospective solicitors are tested in England and Wales. It’s too early to draw firm conclusions about its success or impact, but the preliminary statistics do raise questions and potential concerns.

legal cheek‘s Aishah Hussain spoke with some of the key players in legal education and training to understand what the results mean for students and the wider profession.

Is the success rate too low or just right?

Questions abound about whether the 53% pass rate is too low or fair for the very first SQE1 round.

Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) board chair Anna Bradley said the results suggest “it was a robust, fair and reliable review” and that while all the benefits of the SQE must be carried out, “it’s a good start”. The SRA’s outgoing education chief, Julie Brannan, echoed Bradley’s comments, stressing that he legal cheek that “it’s not a numbers game, it’s a standards game”; the exam is designed to objectively test candidates as to whether they meet the standard of a “first-day lawyer”.

“The standards were appropriate, fair and rigorously enforced,” continued Brannan, who recently announced his retirement in June.

The passing scores of 57% for FLK1 and 56% for FLK2 were set using a Modified-Angoff method involving a panel of qualified attorneys who reviewed each question and estimated the proportion of newly qualified attorneys who would answer it correctly. The use of a “standards setting” rather than a fixed passing grade is widely accepted as a valid approach in professional examinations, such as the centralized Bar Standards Board (BSB) assessments in civil and criminal litigation, but carries the risk of introducing subjectivity into the process, as the pass mark depends on the perceived level of difficulty of the assessment.

Reactions from academics from the various SQE training providers have been mixed.

Professor Peter Hungerford-Welch, associate dean of postgraduate and professional programs at City Law School, said the overall pass rate was “disappointing”. Expanding further, he said this could be a consequence of the volume of material assessed in the two SQE1 exams (FLK1 and FLK2) which combine the knowledge previously required in the qualifying law degree with knowledge from the mandatory practice areas of the legal practice course.

Lucie Allen, who recently took on the role of chief executive of BARBRI, also found the overall pass mark “a bit low”, but said that was not surprising given the major change applicants have experienced. “The exams covered 16 different subject areas and 360 multiple-choice questions – it’s tough, to say the least,” Allen said. legal cheek. “However, the results indicate that applicants can and will thrive with the right preparation and support,” she said, adding, “We are tracking a 79% pass rate, which is significantly higher than the overall SQE1 average.”

Of note is the difference in pass mark between the two functional legal knowledge tests. A higher proportion of candidates passed FLK1 (67%) than FLK2 (54%). Commenting on the difference, SQE Independent Reviewer Geoff Coombe said: “It is possible that candidates taking FLK2 just three days after FLK1 may fatigue and/or have less time to prepare as well. to FLK2.” He suggested the SRA monitor the difference and see if it might be worth considering spacing out the exams further.

The 2022 legal cheek List of SQE suppliers

All things considered, the 53% pass rate shows that the SQE is not an easy set of assessments to pass, according to Jo-Anne Pugh, dean of the faculty of law at BPP University. “In addition to the breadth of knowledge covered by the assessment, the passing scores of 57% for FLK1 and 56% for FLK2 will be a game changer for many learners, most of whom will be used to a passing score of 50% in their prior education and many of which will not have previously been assessed at the level of a first-day newly qualified attorney,” Pugh said.

Dr Giles Proctor, chief executive of the College of Legal Practice, said the results were “largely in line” with expectations for the first exam. He said, however, that “we expect to see this increase slightly over time as the composition and size of the cohort changes and grows.”

An “atypical” cohort

We do not know the representativeness of this first cohort of SQE candidates compared to what it will be in the years to come. The SRA reports that those who took the November 2021 assessment were mostly paralegals, apprentices and foreign lawyers. A quarter (25%) of exam takers said they were already qualified lawyers (either a foreign lawyer or a lawyer), while more than three quarters (76%) had already accumulated two years of “qualifying professional experience”. It may take some time for a cohort of “typical” students to become discernible, said Hungerford-Welch, and for the results of students who undertake SQE under an LLB or training contract , for example, materialize. Moreover, only 27 apprentice notaries were part of this first session, and this figure can be expected to increase in future cohorts.

The SRA will also be able to better contextualize Friday’s results after further SQE1 sessions. “We’re just at the very beginning and we’re still in the transition phase,” Brannan said. Leal’s cheek. “We had just over 1,000 applicants for the first session and can expect around 10,000 in the future – the results represent one-tenth of the expected ultimate cohort.”

A more accessible legal profession?

One of the founding objectives of the SQE was to make the legal profession more accessible. Yet, with only 53% of them succeeding, will he strive to achieve this goal?

Allen and Proctor are of the opinion that the flexibility offered by the SQE and in particular the evolution of training requirements towards qualifying internships resulting from the training contract, will make it possible to increase access to the profession in the long term.

Hungerford-Welch, however, believes there is still work to be done. Referring to the SRA’s statistical report, published alongside the findings, he said: “One possible explanation for the difference is prior educational disadvantage, but the statistics, which use a common ‘proxy’ for socio-economic background (at whether one or both parents attended college) suggests that this is not a major factor (the pass rate was 58% for applicants with one or both parents who attended college versus 51% for applicants with neither parent having attended university). However, he noted, “access to work experience (often a function of ‘social capital’) shows 57% for those who undertook a qualifying professional experience against 43% for those who did not.

The distribution of results by ethnic group is of most concern, he continued. The SRA identified an “achievement gap” between ethnic groups: some 65% of white applicants passed the SQE1, compared to 43% of Asian applicants and 39% of black applicants based on a disclosure rate of 40% . The regulator said it had put in place a series of measures to ensure that the SQE is “free from bias” and drafted last month at the University of Exeter to examine the causes of the different levels of achievement of ethnic groups in vocational assessments. Results are expected in late 2023 or early 2024.

“While SQE is not alone in having significant differences in pass rates, there is a need to investigate the reason for this difference in the context of SQE and consider strategies to address the disparity,” said said Hungerford-Welch. “This is something where the SRA could usefully work with the BSB (whose centralized assessments also take the form of multiple choice/single best answer questions).”

Overall, last Friday was a “historic day in legal education,” said Peter Crisp, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Law. Applicants will now need to determine if they are progressing to SQE2, for which bookings open on January 31 and end on March 7, 2022. If they fail the first stage of the assessment, they have the option of retaking the review with the next cohort. aspiring notaries in July 2022.

Are you planning to take the SQE but you don’t know what your financing options are? legal cheek is partnering with BPP University Law School for a virtual student event tomorrow (Thursday, January 27) exploring the various funding options on offer. Apply for one of the last (and free) places to attend.

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Nancy I. Romero