Junior lawyers have told the SRA to delay introducing a new ‘super-exam’ for aspiring solicitors next year amid concerns that it will not be fully fit for purpose.

The SRA announced on Monday that its board had signed off the final design for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, which begins in September 2021. Candidates will be required to pass both stages of the exam process, SQE1 (functioning legal knowledge) and SQE2 (skills-based assessment).

However, the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division told SRA chief executive Paul Philip in a letter yesterday that it is concerned the proposed exam is not ready for final approval and needs more time ‘to ensure it is fit for purpose’. The letter has been cc'd to the Legal Services Board's chair and chief executive.

The letter, signed by JLD chair Charlotte Parkinson, lists several concerns.

The division is concerned that not enough is being done before the exam is introduced to assess why black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates did not perform as well as other candidates in the SQE1 pilot.

It is also suggested the SRA’s approach could increase elitism if firms that cannot afford to pay for additional training recruit people who have done further education at their own cost. The division was contacted by individuals who tested some of the sample multiple choice questions that were released in December. A 30-year-old candidate with a non-legal PhD and no legal training took eight minutes to do the first 30 questions and got 73% correct. A 26-year-old with no degree or legal training and resides in a foreign jurisdiction took 25 minutes to do the first 30 questions and scored 30%.

Parkinson says the small number of examples ‘produce troubling results and would suggest multiple choice questions are not overly difficult’.

The division believes the SQE will not be cheaper than the qualification regime at present as the estimated £3,000-£4,500 cost of doing the SQE does not include the costs of preparatory training courses. Preparatory training would not be eligible for student loans and SQE ‘may prove too costly for many without access to capital or a training contract at a City firm to enter the profession’.

Findings from the SQE2 pilot were published last Friday. The division says the SRA has provided almost no time for the wider profession to respond.

Parkinson says: ‘Overhauling the system should be a once in a generation event and, as such, it is vital that the final form of the SQE is one that the legal profession can be proud to stand behind. While we recognise the inevitable need for tweaks to be made once the new system is in place, it is vital that the form of qualification agreed upon is as close to perfect as can be upon implementation. It is not sufficient to say that what is proposed will be better than the current process for qualification and accept that as a suitable standard.' 

Julie Brannan, SRA director of education and training, said the regulator's work involved thousands of stakeholders and it worked closely with several organisations, including the JLD, as part of its reference group to ensure it got assessment details right. 

Brannan added that the training market is still developing but that it would be possible to qualify in more affordable ways than the current system. The multiple choice question approach is a 'tried and tested way of rigorously assessing candidates'.