‘The MCQ format was very patronising and far too easy. It was like a dummies guide to the law!’
I was one of a number of people who sat the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) stage one pilot last month. The candidates ranged from LLB graduates to Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduates but most of the candidates were working in practice. My background is not ‘conventional’ and I took the pilot because I was interested in knowing whether the SQE would cater for people like me. I do not have any GCSEs or A-levels because I left school at the age of 14 to care for my ill mother. I studied for my LLB over six years and then completed a combined LLM-LPC over two years.
The SQE1 pilot was a three-day assessment consisting of 360 multiple-choice questions on the foundations of legal knowledge, namely business law; property law; wills and trusts; criminal law; EU law; public and constitutional law; tort law; contract law; and professional conduct. There were also two research questions and four writing questions. No materials were provided, and the exams were closed-book. Prior to the exam I emailed the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for revision guidance and was referred to the pilot specification which told me that anything within the above topics would be examined.
The exam started with three rounds of 60 questions with 110 minutes for each on a mixture of the topics outlined above. The questions were scenario-based (one scenario per question) with five possible answers. Most of the questions were simple but after speaking with some recent LLB graduates it became clear that they did not know many of the answers — especially to the questions on the topics that are exclusively covered on the LPC.
The questions often dropped big hints towards the answers which could be guessed by the facts of the scenario. I gave answers which were my best guesses based on both the questions and also the five answer options. Some I could have argued more than one answer was correct. There was no mention of any specific law, the SRA Code of Conduct, the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) or the Criminal Procedure Rules (CPR) in any of the questions.
I found the MCQ format very patronising and far too easy — it was like a dummies guide to the law! The questions did not test my legal knowledge to the standard that my law degree did. The time allocated for each question was far too long, and because the exam was closed-book and conducted in front of a computer, there was nothing I could do if I did not know the answer. I finished each round with around 40-50 minutes to spare. The whole day was timed so I was unable to leave until the clock ran down.
Day two consisted of two rounds of one research question and two writing questions. I was given an email from a partner of a firm telling me he was advising a client on their obligations to file accounts; he told me he was working on the technical areas of the advice and asked if I could research the simpler part of whether a small to medium enterprise (SME) had to file accounts. I was given eight pieces of material and had to sift through these to find the correct answer. I did not feel as if this was ‘legal research’ and I was not required to carry out any research myself using legal databases. I liken it to being passed a pile of car magazines and asked to find a red car in them. I was then required to type a memo to the partner.
The next section was writing. I was given another email from a partner telling me he had to advise a client and was handling the technical part, while I was required to write a paragraph to insert into the letter explaining section 36 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The final writing section consisted of a memo to a partner explaining Part 24 of the CPR. Both of these sources were provided. The next round was the same as above.
This section of the assessment did not test my research or writing ability at all because I could cut and paste (and did) several parts from the material provided. The spell-check facility was disabled so at least that was something. The main issue I found was the noise: 15 people typing at the same time was deafening (even with ear plugs!) I was not required to apply the law or to advise but just explain the area of law in “everyday English”.
The final day followed the structure of the first day: three rounds of 60 multiple-choice questions which focused on the areas of law outlined above. When speaking with some of the other candidates post-exam it was obvious they had the same set of questions I had on day one and vice versa. The questions were, again, simple but this time they were poorly written and I had to take extra time today (than I did previously) due to the poor grammar and punctuation.
I do not believe the MCQ format enables candidates to demonstrate knowledge of the law; it is all a matter of common sense. There was no application of the law nor was I given the chance to demonstrate wider knowledge or make an argument one way or the other. I do not feel the questions allowed any of the skills required in future practice to be demonstrated such as problem-solving or the ability to be analytical. What these questions allow for is someone to study the exam but not the law or the skills required to be a lawyer. Overall, I felt the questions were condescending and pandering in their nature. It remains to be seen what SQE2, which will be piloted later this year, holds.
Richard Robinson (pseudonym) is a paralegal.