Dealing with the mental ‘shockwave’ of the SQE

Avatar photo

By SQE Survivor on

21

A paralegal opens up about wellbeing challenges associated with the new assessment


The opinion you never asked for — I passed the SQE1 exams whilst working full-time. I’m still recovering from the shockwave.

After what felt like ages, the day finally came: SQE1 exam results day. The email came into my inbox, promptly followed by a wave of nausea. Clicking on the link, my eyes were drawn to that coveted word, “PASS”. By some miracle (and when I say miracle, I mean it), I actually passed both FLK1 and FLK2.

Since then, I have been in perpetual disbelief that I somehow managed to pass the exams, having left the exam centre on both occasions feeling utterly defeated, and perhaps not quite the same person as when I went in. I am left with overwhelming ambivalence about the whole experience.

Whilst I am one of the lucky ones to have passed the exams, I can’t help but feel almost like a fraud — why should I, who achieved scarcely over the pass mark, be able to toast champagne with my colleagues and family, whilst the candidate who lost out on a handful of correct answers, spends the rest of the week under their duvet, battling with the prospects of having to re-enter a mental sinkhole?

I was scrolling through social media on the exam results day, and it truly made for sorry reading. I flicked through personal accounts of the mental and emotional turmoil in which participants found themselves when preparations began, the life moments that were sacrificed, all in efforts to devote every waking moment to revising. Oddly, it felt comforting to read that others had the same experience as me: troubled sleep, anxiety, reclusiveness and spiralling emotions.

Perhaps it was a combination of the sheer expanse of material covered by the exams (including areas of law that were entirely new to me), the necessity to rote learn over a period of many months in efforts to commit the content to memory, and the relentless use of red-herrings within the MCQs aimed at throwing you off course, that made the process so disconcerting.

It seems to me that this sort of “rigorous professional assessment”, as the SRA christened it, cannot be a sustainable way of testing wannabe lawyers to ensure they are ‘up for the job’; to put them on the back-foot before they even begin in practice. Of course, it is fair to say that to be part of the legal profession is a privilege, and the key shouldn’t be handed over as a matter of right. However, I wonder about the long-term impact on budding lawyers of this style of gateway examination, which is not cheap by any means, and appears to foster mental and emotional anguish.

SQE Employability: Discover how to make QWE work for you

Reflecting on my experience, I would offer up one meagre tip to success: don’t attempt to work a full-time job whilst studying for these exams. The format demands a huge amount of your time, commitment and emotional energy; impossible to relinquish alongside a full-time job. However, for a large quantity of candidates, I would imagine the alternative is simply not an option. All of us have obligations, whether financial or otherwise. We rely on every last penny of our monthly pay packet. The thought of reducing that monthly income seems an unreasonable ask, and it wouldn’t seem sensible to add to the heavy academic burden of the SQE with an equally heavy burden of worrying about how one is going to pay the rent.

In fact, I would go further and say: it’s not actually as simplistic as avoiding the inevitable balancing act of full-time work and study. A huge dose of luck is involved as well. Luck in the particular questions that arise on the day (and whether, by pure chance, your tired, tired brain is able to conjure the relevant legal concept within the 90-seconds you have to answer the question), and that you are able to engage mental stamina as the fourth hour passes on exam day.

It’s important that I acknowledge the fact I was able to approach these exams from an incredibly privileged position. I have the support of a partner to carry the domestic burdens of daily life that I would otherwise have abandoned. I don’t have any disabilities that would make accessing the exams even more challenging. I have an extremely present family, and work for a firm which supported me through the process. The thought of taking on the SQE without all of the above seems untenable.

My final thoughts would be for those who are yet to attempt the exams, or who have unfortunately not passed this time around. Maybe you are staring down the barrel of undertaking your preparation for a second or third time. Yes, the exams are meant to be hard — we’ve heard that a million times. But that doesn’t actually help. The inescapable struggle with the mental element of this process, which is arguably more difficult to traverse than learning the exam content itself, is justified, and I’m sure, felt deeply by all candidates. If you feel like you might, or indeed have, ‘failed’ the SQE1, I would say that it speaks more to the precarious system than to your true abilities, and certainly does not determine how successful a lawyer you will be.

SQE Survivor is an LLB graduate and currently works as a paralegal.

21 Comments

Anon

I passed last week and I still don’t feel settled. The amount of anxiety and stress will definitely have lasting effects. I’ve been diagnosed with alopecia and lost a lot of weight.

Everyone in my class looks burnt out and tired and we still have to deal with the unknown of the next exams.

SQE

I passed SQE 1 by miracle also (I went in fully conscious of the fact that I had not studied two of the topics, for reasons that do not matter here). Whilst everyone is different, I neither felt the stress on the day nor after, and the fact that it was a long exam was merely what it was. Assuming I am not entirely mad (!), I would add some comments to your final advice, if I may: (i) not all of it is new. Most of the stuff is GDL/LLB subject matter. Yes, there are some new topics but these are a minority; (ii) the number of questions and number of topics means that there are some 20 questions per topic, spread out over two days (e.g. 20 questions on contract, 20 on tort….). Not knowing one subject area well enough – or, in my case, two – is not the end of the world; (iii) PLAY THE ODDS. You are given 5 possible answers, meaning that you would expect someone with no knowledge of law to get 20% just at random. Narrowing down the possible answers will increase that probability. Get it down to two possibe ‘best’ answers and the probability of getting the right answer goes to 50%. You are better off guessing the outcome of a coin toss than you are guessing the outcome of a die roll; and (iv) to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, the question is who is master: you or the SQE exam. Good luck to the next cohort!

SQEShitShow

I’m qualified and did the LPC. I know well rounded sponsored future trainees who have failed the SQE. They undoubtedly would have passed the LPC with flying colours. The SQE is a shit show. It’s clearly not working. I’m not sure what skills it is testing. It has clearly been created by crackhouse consultants who are so far removed from the reality of the industry. The SRA need to swallow their pride and U turn on this.

JimGower85

Memory, that’s it.

Anonymous

It is merely a test of memory.

Anonymous

It is merely a test of memory.

(Legal Cheek – my comment is erroneously being rejected as a duplication – is that an error around the word ‘memory’’)

Fellow survivor

Firstly, congratulations on passing! I could not have put it better myself – I was in a very similar situation. The first ever sittings of the SQE1 & 2 were my final solicitor apprenticeship assessments whilst working full time. Almost 2.5 years later and I’m still thinking about these exams. After qualification I took a sabbatical and it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made!

Concerned for all of us

We all need to have a serious chat about this. The SQE exam and life in big law firms – it’s no joke. You’re looking at a serious mental health toll, zero time for anything else, and anxiety creeping in at every turn. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Now, why am I bringing this up? Because I wish someone had told me before I dove in headfirst. Spending a fortune, sacrificing your youth, time, health, and personal life, only to find out it’s not sustainable? It’s a tough pill to swallow.

And here’s the kicker: because the process is so darn long, you end up discovering later that maybe law isn’t your thing after all. But by then, you’ve invested so much time and money, you feel like you need to see it through. Talk about a bitter pill.

So, to all you future lawyers gearing up for the SQE and LPC journey, take a step back and think. If I had known then what I know now, I’d have chosen differently. Maybe opted for a smaller firm or smaller practice area, explored other interests, kept my options open.

Don’t let the allure of prestige blind you to the reality of the situation. Your happiness and well-being matter more than any title or paycheck.

Sarah

Being a solicitor requires mental fortitude. Yes the SQE is a lot of hard work and you feel frazzled after but that’s life, whatever career path you choose. Mental wellbeing is important but that shouldnt mean nothing is difficuit or challenging any more. From what I gather, the LPC qualification was given to almost anyone who was willing to pay for it and stick out the course/turn up for the exams, which is the wrong attitude. For the record I did an SQE1 prep course alongside working full time and with young children and juggling childcare, and passed sqe1 and sqe2 first time (self studying for SQE2).

Esko Mauno

two variations on a theme in response to your comment:

(1) “tell me you’ve never studied the LPC without telling me you’ve never studied the LPC”

(2) what is it about the SQE that makes those who studying/sitting it feel they can denigrate the achievements of those who sat the LPC and previous exams? none of the three are/were easy and none are achieved solely by attendance.

I’ve never heard any senior lawyer who took Law Society Finals call the LPC “easy” – and this is a generation of lawyers who found out if they had passed or failed the exams when the results were published in The Times.

what I *have* heard, however, from qualified lawyers of all levels (including my firm’s clients) is the concern that the SQE is testing future lawyers on an aspect of legal practice (memory) that isn’t relevant in the 2020s

Annoyed

I’m really tired of people trying to put their two cents in and say ‘it’s just an exam!! It’s meant to be hard’. Most people aren’t complaining about the sqe because we have to revise a little harder. I worked until 2am at Kirk’s as a paralegal getting paid 35k and my mental health was in a much better place than it was doing the SQE. It’s not about people disliking hard work.

Anonymous

Plenty of well rounded sponsored future trainees at top firms failed the LPC. The pass rate is not particularly different. It’s just easier to moan about something when it’s new.

Anonymous

The SRA released practice questions in the lead up to the exams which I diligently used as part of my preparation. I felt buoyed by my performance on these (scoring 70-80%) and felt quietly confident going into the real exams, having spent hours and hours on top of my full time job revising for. However, I felt blindsided and deflated by the exams – how can the same organisation that write the real things produce practice material that was so far off, so different? Weeks of feeling sick and anxious ensued as I awaited my results and I luckily passed – scraped through by 1 or 2 questions that I fortunately answered correctly. The least they can do is give us material that will actually prepare us and give us an actual insight into what we’d experience. If you want to make the exams that hard, fine, but don’t let prospective solicitors be lulled into a false sense of security.

Anonymous

Can’t help feeling that everybody has a novel to write about themselves, and currently the new best seller is how I passed an exam in my personal circumstances. Surely this gen-z readers’ market will direct to something more intelligent than that when they get to their 30s, having had their middle age crisis so much earlier.

Concerned family member and law outsider

I don’t study or practice law, but the fact I find myself on Legal Cheek reading these articles is rather telling.

My sibling held a training contact with a firm in London and, thankfully, passed the SQE last year. I witnessed their struggles over the year, including their deteriorating mental and physical health, which escalated to frankly dangerous levels leading up to the SQE1 and SQE2 exams. I was shocked to hear about the shambolic nature of these exams, from failed logistics at exam centres which I believe Legal Cheek has covered to the questionable exam philosophies such as choosing the “best answer” amongst a field of other answers that could still be deemed correct.

Something needs to change to make this exam not merely more reasonable and just but also more safe. It is no joke what this exam has put people through—especially young, promising, and hard-working people. And to all those who took the LPC or are already lawyers in practice, I encourage you to try out the questions yourself, imagining that the knowledge and experience you have accumulated has yet to come, before judging those who have shared the challenges and flaws of the new system and are calling for change. I wish I had enough law knowledge to approach the questions and understand exactly what my sibling and many others went through. But I don’t. Maybe you do.

Anonymous

Wait until they start the training contract.

Jules

I passed first time whilst working full time. During that year we renovated our home which resembled a building site for months on end. My mother and MIL were both seriously ill and I had a trapped nerve for weeks before, during and after the exam. I was too scared to say I had passed when I saw my results because it didn’t feel possible. I’m relieved but because I feel so sorry for those that failed I feel little satisfaction. I started SQE2 on Monday and I feel overwhelmed.

Anonymous

It would be interesting to know the percentage of those taking the exam after “self-study”. Given the pass rate of the SQE is similar to the LPC, there would be a valid argument to say the SQE is easier to pass. There seems to be a lot of unnecessary hype around this.

Maggie

Are there any stats for the Self Study vs assisted study? And what is a good estimate of months for self study?

Tommo brassic

I done both the LPC and the SQE. The SQE is churning out incompetent lawyers.

It’s like giving a surgeon 120 multiple choice questions for open heart surgery education. Why did the SQE happen, to drop the standards of the process that quite rightly stopped useless squits not being able to secure training contracts.

Watch the solicitor disciplinary tribunal cases increase tenfold.

Anon

The SRA has the cheek to bang on about wellbeing and mental health under their codes and guidance, but the distress the Sqe is causing to people is shameful. Bright individuals are being treated by the SRA with contempt and mistrust even before they have entered the profession. They are made to sign NDAs, they have cameras filming their every move and need to go through multiple id checks every time they leave their desk during the exams – even for the toilet! This is a very poor way to start any relationship. The exams are nothing like real life, competent individuals are failing! The sqe is a memory game that most qualified solicitors could no pass without looking up the law. The mental turmoil people are being put under just to enter the profession is a disaster waiting to happen. The Sra has been warned numerous times and will be to blame when this disaster materialises… worse still the brains that introduced the sqe at the SRA are long gone, leaving others to pick up the mess.

Join the conversation

Related Stories

news SQE Hub

‘I passed SQE1 at the first attempt – but here’s everything that needs to change’

A future trainee solicitor offers their post-exam reflections

Mar 20 2024 10:46am
39
news SQE Hub

‘I failed SQE1 and lost my TC. Is anyone else in the same boat?’

Needs help on what to do next

Mar 19 2024 8:51am
92