Nearly a decade after commencing work on a new ‘super exam’ for aspiring solicitors, the Solicitors Regulation Authority board has signed off on the final design.

The regulator said today that the final design for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, which begins in September 2021, is valid, reliable, manageable and cost-effective.

Candidates will be required to pass both stages of the exam process, SQE1 and SQE2.

SQE1 will test functioning knowledge of the law and will comprise two multiple-choice tests, each containing 180 questions. SQE2 will test legal research, legal writing, legal drafting, case and matter analysis, advocacy, client interviewing and attendance note/legal analysis through 15-18 tasks in five set areas of practice.

SQE 2 will be based on a ‘uniform model’. Kaplan, the education provider running SQE on behalf of the regulator, said optional models explored in the SQE2 pilot did not give sufficient confidence that all candidates would be assessed against a single universal standard at admission.

However, minutes for a SRA board meeting held on 2 June show that two of the 10 board members voted against a uniform model.

Geoff Nicholas, a partner at magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, ‘saw a uniform assessment as a retrograde step in that it tested candidates’ skills in contexts in which many of them would never practise, having already demonstrated their legal knowledge across all relevant areas of practice as part of SQE1. He also drew attention to the fact that the agreed purpose of the SQE was to provide greater, rather than absolute, assurance of consistent high standards at the point of entry into the profession, something he felt could be demonstrated through a skills assessment undertaken by reference to the candidates’ chosen contexts’.

Barry Matthews, founder of Social Mobility Business Partnership, ‘felt that the requirements were disproportionate and created a potential barrier to entry for individuals from low income backgrounds’. Matthews, a former legal affairs director at ITV, grew up on a council estate and states on his website that he knows ‘what a mountain entering into a profession seems when you have no network or understanding of what is required’.

Although the board agreed by a majority of eight to two that SQE2 should take the form of a uniform assessment model, the minutes state that some board members who supported the recommendation expressed disappointment ‘that it had not proved possible to design an assessment that offered candidates optionality’.

The regulator still plans to begin SQE in September 2021 despite being told by some universities and firms that Covid-19 was affecting preparations. The final cost for taking the new exam has yet to be published but is being estimated at between £3,000 and £4,500.

SRA chief executive Paul Phillip 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.’

The regulator will make a final submission to the Legal Services Board in July.