SRA releases first review into SQE ethnicity attainment gap

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By Aishah Hussain on


Career barriers can have a ‘knock-on’ effect in candidates’ performance

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has published the first phase of a major research project into the “attainment gap” between different ethnic groups in professional law exams, finding that career barriers can have a “knock-on” effect in candidates’ performance.

The research was commissioned in December 2021 when the regulator called upon academics from Exeter University to better understand the reasons behind the difference in performance between white and minority ethnic candidates sitting the Solicitors Qualifying Exam.

The “literature review” said: “Marginalised candidates may feel they cannot enter the profession or advance in their careers post-qualification. As a result, they might not give their best in legal professional assessments.”

These candidates may choose to prioritise success in other areas seen as more valued by employers, such as work experience and soft skills, it said, continuing: “These are areas identified by the literature, wherein minority ethnic individuals tend to experience disadvantages, having to try harder compared to their white and/or more privileged peers. As a result, they may allocate fewer resources to legal professional assessments.”

The findings were drawn from 215 academic articles relating to the attainment gap, and 43 practitioner-focused reports.

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The literature review further suggests the “characteristics” of the legal profession are likely to have implications for attainment in professional assessments. The legal profession was seen as “elite and stratified”, academics said, with barriers to entry including the high costs associated with qualifying.

“Due to its long-standing history and association with the notion of an elite profession, change might come harder for the legal profession, compared with other, younger professions such as engineering,” the review said. “The stratified representation could lead to Black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals seeing obvious limitations on how far they can go in their legal careers, which go beyond their control. In turn, this could disincentivise them from doing their best in legal professional assessments.”

There was also a “lack of acknowledgment that factors other than merit influence progression” and a “continuing influence of social class, privilege and whiteness in career success and progression”, according to the review.

The academics will now test the hypotheses put forward in the review for the next stage of the project.

Dr Sam De Silva, chair of the Law Society’s Ethnic Solicitors Network, welcomed the initial findings, saying: “We are pleased to see the SRA has made public the first stages of its research which examines the profession’s ethnicity attainment gap. This is an important first step.”

He added: “We await the next stages of the report to identify what actions need to be taken to address the issues.”

The research is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, and the final report will be published in spring 2024.

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