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

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By Concerned SQE Student on

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A future trainee solicitor offers their post-exam reflections


The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) introduced the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in September 2021. The SRA aimed to standardise the qualification whilst improving accessibility to the profession; however, its implementation has been fraught with problems.

I sat the SQE1 in January 2024 and scored in the top quintile for both exams on my first attempt. However, despite my strong performance and having navigated A-Levels, an undergraduate degree, and a post-graduate diploma in law with top marks, I have never sat an exam that was so unfairly punitive. Below are a number of issues I have encountered in the current system.

Signing of a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)

The requirement for candidates to sign an NDA before sitting each exam effectively silences candidates from openly discussing their exam experiences. This lack of open communication not only deprives candidates and the SRA of valuable insights and feedback that could be used to improve the exams, but also means there is limited accountability for any potential irregularities in the administration of the SQE. A quick search online would unearth several alleged, unacceptable issues candidates have faced which I will not go into further detail with here, as I do not wish to breach the NDA in any form.

Prohibitive exam fees

Students must pay a total of £4,564 to sit the SQE (£1,798 for SQE1 — two 180-questions multiple choice exams — and £2,766 for SQE2 — a series of written and oral examinations). This is likely to increase to approximately £5000 due to inflation, as they did last year. This is significantly more expensive than comparable exams abroad, such as the New York Bar which costs $250 (£197) if you attended law school locally and $750 (£590) if are a foreign student.

Furthermore, there are no discounts for resits, unlike for the LPC resits which cost between £75 and £300. Peers have also highlighted the extra expenses incurred for booking travel and accommodation to attend the oral portion of the SQE2 exams. These exams are spread across two days and are currently offered exclusively in Birmingham, Cardiff, London, and Manchester.

These high costs place an undue burden on aspiring solicitors, particularly affecting those from lower socio-economic backgrounds; I fear this may dissuade them from pursuing a legal career. I recognise that without funding from my firm, sitting these exams would have been financially unfeasible.

Cost of the preparation courses

Whilst candidates may sit the SQE without any formal legal background and self-study, a large number do choose to complete a prep course. Prices for full SQE preparatory courses vary widely, ranging from approximately £3,000 to £19,750. Several factors influence these costs, including location, whether the candidate already possesses a law degree (i.e., will they have to undertake the PGDL element as I did), the extent of in-person teaching provided, and whether the course includes a master’s component.

Additionally, within some of these courses there are different pricing tiers which offer varying access to materials, revision notes, and importantly, past papers. This seems to create an uneven playing field, favouring candidates who can afford higher-priced options or those with access to employer-funded training contracts. Moreover, for many candidates, once the costs of exams and preparatory courses are combined, the SQE is more expensive than the LPC it replaced — this is contrary to the SRA’s explicit aims of introducing the SQE to boost accessibility to the legal profession. This disparity underscores the financial challenges faced by aspiring solicitors and raises concerns about equitable access to professional training.

Content / past papers

The SRA’s failure to provide a comprehensive exam specification or meaningful past papers has left course providers in the dark, leaving them with no option other than to make educated guesses regarding the exam content. Consequently, different providers offer varying interpretations, making it challenging for candidates to pinpoint exactly what they need to study. This ambiguity was particularly evident around grey areas of law, resulting in confusing discrepancies amongst providers in their answers to multiple-choice questions (MCQs).

The reason I had to use different providers was because the SRA only released 1 sample paper for each SQE1 exam. Therefore, I had to purchase more materials from external sources at a considerable cost to ensure I could practice comprehensively. I am glad I did, as the samples provided were deceptively easy compared to the real thing.

Paths to becoming a lawyer: Find out more about each stage of the journey

Releasing past papers or creating a detailed, focused specification would enable providers to better align their materials with the exam’s content and level of difficulty, thereby improving learning outcomes for students. Additionally, this would empower solo candidates to tailor their preparation more effectively, rendering it a more accessible option.

Best-answer MCQs are a poor method of examining candidates

Unlike traditional multiple-choice questions where only one answer is correct, “best answer” questions require candidates to select the most appropriate response from the 5 options provided. Whilst some answers may be clear-cut, determining the “best” option often involves subjective interpretation, particularly in contentious areas of law.  Additionally, these questions sometimes delved into extremely niche topics that are inadequately covered in preparation materials. Moreover, these questions had to be completed, on average, within 1 minute and 40 seconds, in gruelling 2 hours and 39 minutes sessions where access to water was restricted (you had to go outside the test room in order to drink whilst the time continued). This is hardly representative of the working conditions of a solicitor.

Course provider pass rate vs self-study pass rate

The SRA has not disclosed pass rates for candidates who self-study versus those who attend preparatory courses, nor have they provided pass rates for individual course providers. This lack of transparency impedes candidates’ ability to make informed decisions about their exam preparation. Without knowing the effectiveness of self-study versus formal courses or the performance of different providers, candidates risk investing in inadequately prepared providers. The promised release of this information by the SRA, which has been delayed, would greatly enhance candidates’ ability to prepare effectively for the exams.

Three attempts within six years

The provision restricting candidates to three attempts within a six-year period appears disproportionately punitive, especially when you consider the teething problems candidates have faced and that similar exams such as the New York Bar do not impose similar limitations.

I hope that by outlining the issues I have identified on the SQE1, this will prompt others to come forward with their own experiences and ultimately lead to the SRA acting upon these shortcomings for the betterment of candidates and the profession as a whole.

Concerned SQE Student is a future trainee solicitor and current SQE student. 

39 Comments

Sacked from the Mac

Hear! Hear!

It stinks

The lack of clarity regarding the specification/syllabus combined with (effectively) zero SRA past papers is shocking. It feels like the regime has been rolled out prematurely.

Additionally, certain providers are better than others and appear to have more clarity on the content of the actual exams. It is not an even playing field.

For reference, I have done both SQE1 and SQE2 using a combination of providers.

Sl

Hi,

Can you share which providers you can recommend?
Thanks

Wizz

Hi could share with us your provider in preparation for the course

Robert

This is all 100% correct. RE: the costs; how on earth can the New York bar be run for such a reasonable cost when the SQE (1 at least) is costing over 2 thousand pounds. It’s a computer MCQ, where is this money going?

What?

You have to leave the room to drink water, and it’s timed? The SQE seems to have been designed with the sole purpose of causing pain and suffering. What an embarrassment for the SRA.

SQEPasser

Yep – I actually had to put my hand up, wait for an invigilator to come get me, ask to go get water and then had to walk outside the test room to drink it – all whilst my time continued!

You get an hour break between the 2 hours and 39 minute sittings, but by the end of the day just so mentally fatigued and dehydrated (+ the room I was in was boiling, had to keep asking for the AC to come on) just so many silly mistakes were made.
Thank god I passed and never have to sit this again!

Interested in the SQE

Any particular reason provided by the examinations board for not permitting water in the examination room?

anon

They think 20 something year olds can’t drink water without spilling it all over a desktop made in 1992

SRA Useless

Could not agree more. There are so many issues, but especially around the use of NDAs. There are numerous horror stories around reasonable adjustments being pulled / changed / cancelled at the last minute, outdated “driving-test centre” computers shutting down mid-exam or accidentally deleting text, some SQE2 candidates have mentioned how there was an error in their marking and all of their results came back as fails. Not to mention the worrying statistics coming out of SQE2 regarding the pass rates for BAME candidates…
Would be interesting if LegalCheek could reach out to some of these candidates who were affected by this / create a more open platform for these issues to be aired.

Anon

So we can no longer like Legal Cheek comments?

Just when I thought this place couldn’t get any more boring…

-

Or perhaps they are just having a short term issue with their like/dislike buttons that they are trying to fix…

Simone

You should put in a freedom of information request to improve transparency. What is the pass mark for sqe1 and difference between self study and course attendance. Sra is a public body and are required to answer foi requests. Good luck. I graduated with gdl and ma in law and ethics in healthcare practice and done send tribunal work

Anon law school

This is a good idea. Do the SRA collect this data? i.e. when you book do, is there reportable tick box to ask whether you have prepared with a third party and a drop down list to choose from? If not, they won’t be able to answer the question and if not reportable i.e. free text, it will be very difficult to do.

Given the SRA insisted as part of the initial proposal that prep courses wouldn’t be necessary, I’d be surprised if they asked and chose to report on any differences here in case it proved them wrong! Call me cynical…

I know the providers of the courses try and report on their pass rates but they’re reliant on students updating them as to their results. Unlike the LPC they don’t get notified. So if you’re looking at providers, you can ask how their pass rates differ to the SRA’s national average but make sure you check what % of students shared the data with their provider otherwise you won’t know whether it’s accurate.

Not all doom and gloom

I think it’s important to give a slight counterpoint to this article. Prior to starting preparation for the SQE, I read a bunch of similar thought prices and they did nothing but add to my anxiety.

For context, I’m a sponsored student due to start a TC at a US firm this coming September. I sat SQE1 this past January after completing ULAW’s prep course and passed in the top quintile. My undergrad was in the humanities and I did a GDL a couple of years back. I found the SQE1 exam very challenging: I continually questioned my ability to pass the exam during the prep course and I convinced myself several times after the exam that I had failed spectacularly.

That said, I think many of these posts/articles are slightly sensational. Reading between the lines, many of them in essence indiscreetly state: what a difficult exam, aren’t I great for battling through the odds and doing really well in spite of everything? In other words, just a little self-indulgent and not at all helpful for anyone about to embark on the SQE/prep courses in the near future who may be justifiably apprehensive.

I agree entirely with the costs points – the courses are too expensive (so much for increasing diversity to the profession) and the costs for an exam comprised of MCQs (requiring no actual marking) are unjustifiable. It is disingenuous for the SRA to continually state that these exams are meant to widen access to the profession – realistically, the vast majority of candidates will have to complete an LLB/GDL and then a full prep course on top of paying the course fees. Much more expensive than the old GDL/LLB + LPC route, and with a much more difficult exam to sit at the end of all that spending!

In my experience, the points addressing the inadequacies of course providers are overstated. I did not purchase any materials from other course providers and I did fine. I’m not saying that ULAW provided the perfect course, in particular some of the individual teachers were slightly subpar, but the course as a whole was entirely adequate to do well on the exam. The textbooks are mostly well written and the mocks/practice questions provided were similar to those encountered in the actual exam. In fact, my SQE1 mark of 80% was slightly higher than my average mark during the prep course. Trust the process, cover all the material, and do lots of practice questions.

Regarding the issue of the syllabus itself – the difficultly lies in the breadth of material rather than the complexity of the law. Nothing on the exam is overly complex and most of the questions simply require the candidate to recall a particular point of law and apply it to a simple fact pattern. Easier said than done, I know! But there were no obvious red hearings in my exam and I was mostly able to narrow my options down to two on most of the difficult questions. The black letter law questions, in particular, mirrored closely the material I covered on the GDL. I am not understating the demands of committing this amount of materiel to memory; what I am saying is that if you know the law and get used to the MCQ format, you should be fine.

Regarding the online sample questions – I agree, on average, they are easier than the questions in the actual exam. That said, there were questions on the exam that were just as easy or even easier. I’d probably place their difficulty in the 30th percentile when compared to the question set in the exam itself. It’s also worth noting that those sample questions were probably attempted in the comfort of the library under no time pressure. I, for one, certainly have a tendency of overstating the relative difficulty of a question after attempting it in a formal exam. However, I do agree that the SRA/Kaplan need to do a better job of supplying past papers – why not release the questions from previous sittings?

Anyway, that was a bit of rant. My main point is that you stand to do fine if you throw yourself into the prep course and do most of the work/practice questions provided. A lot of people will waste a ton of energy worrying about their course provider, SRA syllabuses, sample questions, and how many water breaks they can take. I was guilty of this and I now regret it entirely. That energy could have been better spent in my actual preparation for the exams.

Fellow Quintile 1 Passer

Very well said and I couldn’t agree more. There are some very valid criticisms of the SRA and the SQE. But generally, the difficulty of the exams and the inadequacy of training providers is heavily overstated.

Another fellow Quintile 1 Passer

“Difficulty of the exams and the inadequacy of training providers is heavily overstated” – aye, it was a complete walk in the park wasn’t it. Hardest exams I’ve ever sat, and the materials provided aren’t great. Would have loved to have known all this before sitting the exam. I know some really capable people who have failed and lost TCs because of this joke of an exam. But well done, pat yourself on the back + don’t raise valid criticisms about the system.

Not all doom and gloom

I agree – the exam was the most difficult exam I have ever sat and I doubted that I’d passed up until the moment I opened my results. But, with the benefit of hindsight, the materials provided by the established course providers were, in my opinion, adequate to pass the exam. To tell prospective students otherwise is dishonest and creates unwarranted anxiety. Honestly, reading these sort of comments/articles before I started the prep course made the whole thing that much more stress inducing.

I also know people who failed the exam for any number of reasons. Some didn’t work hard enough. Others had legitimate reasons for under-performing and should 100% be given an opportunity to resit the exam.

My point was not that this exam is easy – I found it very very hard. Nor do I think that the link-up between the SRA, Kaplan and the course providers is as good as it should be. My intention was merely to give a different perspective on the the whole SQE1 process and to let future students know that they are not necessarily staring down the barrel of inevitable failure.

“Another first quintile passer”

“difficulty of the exams and the inadequacy of training providers is heavily overstated” – yeah these exams were a real walk in the park…
I know really good capable candidates who failed for a myriad of reasons. Much harder exam than the LPC

anon

It’s people like you, where the SRA and Kaplan will read these comments and say “see! some people like it! let’s not change it!”. Fair enough if you retained your mental health and sanity throughout this process but why cant we advocate for change?

Anon law school

I doubt very much that the SRA/Kaplan will trouble themselves to read this article and the comments.

But, they do regularly meet with the providers and employers in morning seminar type discussions to hear the concerns of students, sponsoring employers etc many of which echo those above. One organisation shouting about this is the City of London Law Society Training Committee. They’re a powerful group as an arm of the Law Society, the body which represents lawyers.

The issue seems to be that there are some points the SRA via Kaplan are simply not prepared to change and some they say they’re working on but don’t seem to be making particularly fast progress. For example, in order to respond to complaints about the shortage/difficulty of booking places, they’re scrambling around trying to add more test centres. They seem to want to avoid using academic institutions e.g. Ulaw/BPP facilites in order not to have conflicts of interest/appear neutral even though those organisations are well set up for this sort of exam. So we get stuck with driving centres and the like, which then cascades to other issues around tech, air con, etc etc. The more test centres and places required = higher cost.

The issue around past papers seems to be simply that they don’t have enough of question bank yet to be able to release them as they’re reliant on re-use. An extremely useful bit of lobbying would be to get them to expand the range of test questions.

I’m not sure overall whether, other than the sort of feedback session I mentioned above, you’ll ever get the SRA/Kaplan and providers to work together. The latter would like to. The former seem to be keen to appear neutral and given they continue to maintain that prep courses are not necessary, the information flow will be limited. The prep course providers are looking at the syllabus, using the same practice questions (and trying to replicate by writing their own) but they don’t have any sort of inside info and one provider doesn’t have any better connection to the SRA/Kaplan than another.

The way to get the SRA and Kaplan to listen is to keep raising your feedback directly with them. On here has it’s own useful purpose but not that.

Alexander

What tosh! These exams are far easier than their predecessors- the SRA had decided that it wasn’t fair that candidates should have to undergo intellectual rigour.
What is the point in having qualified solicitors who are unable to withstand the demands of the profession?

John

I whole heartedly agree with your assessment.
I sat the SQE1 in July 2023, through the ULAW LLM program and just put the hard work in.

That’s all it took to pass with 71% and 77% on the two FLK exams. There is no magic or superhuman effort required here.

The standard of SQE is aimed beyond the old LPC, which I could have taken instead but chose SQE as I pop out of academia at the point of a day 1 qualified solicitor.

Real life clients will expect their legal adviser to know the basic application of law. The breadth of knowledge is to be expected of anyone entering the profession of Solicitor.

My only criticism is the cost, which is ridiculously high. The level of cost seems disproportionate and really needs to be addressed through some form of enquiry.

There are always a few who try to invalidate the experiences of others

Genuine question – what part of this is “sensational” or “self-indulgent”? I passed this exam and didn’t think that once of the article was sensational (just think you want to be dismissive). “Aren’t I great – I went with an established provider ULaw, and because I was happy with my 5,000 MCQs that were provided to me, anyone else who has a different experience is invalidated”. The total cost of the ULaw SQE Prep Cost was around £10,000 I think. This is why I had to use alternative cheaper providers – not everyone has training conduct like you did + won’t have access to government funding (I didn’t!). I did have to purchase other materials as well. There are clearly discrepancies between providers, look online – some TC Cohorts were placed with College for Legal Practice = c. 70% fail rate, whereas I know people who used Devil’s Advocate and said they felt inadequately prepared for the exam. Clearly established providers like ULaw were better, but candidates who are trying to make a choice won’t know because accurate figures are not produced + may not be able to afford it.
“Regarding the issue of the syllabus itself – the difficultly lies in the breadth of material rather than the complexity of the law” – again this is disingenuous! The difficulty lies in the fact that you could narrow down the MCQs to 2 possible options, and then needed to know niche areas in quite minute and frankly ridiculous detail. Give this exam to an experienced solicitor and ask them whether you need an OS1 / OS2 or OS3 survey; just silly.
The SRA produced 90 questions for FLK1 and FLK2 – not even a full exam! Can you give a valid reason why the SRA could not have released additional past papers?
“A lot of people will waste a ton of energy worrying about their course provider, SRA syllabuses, sample questions, and how many water breaks they can take” – just a phenomenally ableist + privileged take. That exam was extremely hard especially for those like me who needed reasonable adjustments. Rant over!

Brown Jacobson

There is a rumour that Browne Jacobson had a 30% pass-rate floating on reddit. Can anyone confirm? If so, the firm needs to look into why their trainees are performing worse than the national average.

Oli

I have not yet read the article fully but I felt the need to point out that it is BEYOND A JOKE that you’re required to sign an NDA (to sit an exam?!) when the SRA is currently pushing for them to be banned for employees!

Anon

If anyone has tried to email or phone the SRA or the Kaplan team will understand what a joke they are. I get better customer service from o2 mobile call centres. It’s embarrassing for them.

Hopeful

I wonder if it would be possible to challenge this exam via Judicial Review. As it stands, the exam is unacceptable and doesn’t achieve its alleged diversity goals (giving the pass rate for ethnic minorities and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds). It seems to me that firms have given up and will not challenge this broken system, but surely something could be done?

Northern

Very much agree with all of your comments, thank you for writing this article.

Also worth highlighting is the terrible booking system – logged on at 10am when booking opened and didn’t get through until 4pm, essentially wasting a full work day. There was little to no communication from the SRA that day. When I did finally get through, there were no spaces in my 30 closest test centres. I ended up sitting both exams in London and staying there for 10 days. I live in Newcastle and there is a test centre in the city centre. I know someone else who was forced to travel to Vienna (!) to sit their exams. As advised, I checked the system daily to book to a closer location but there was nothing. So not only is travel to SQE2 oral test centres costly, but also SQE1 and SQE2 written test centres too. I work for a legal charity and am only able to sit the exams through a scholarship, for which I’m very thankful, because there’s no chance I could have afforded the exams and prep course otherwise.

Quintile 1 passer

I passed on first attempt in Quintile 1, I self-sponsored the preparation, which is obscene amount of money, and have 2:1 degree too, buy I’m quite sure I won’t get training contract at all no matter how hard I try. Because I’m in my 40s and I’m a career changer. It is not the high barrier to pass the exam , I think it should be high. It is the high barrier to enter the industry in the first place. They have ridiculous application forms targeted at 20 year olds, and it is either training contract or nothing – if you want to enter the profession

SQEcommentOnAgeism

Agreed; and whilst the firms always say that they look at ‘equivalent’ to PQE, the reality is that they don’t. As an industry, its recruitment and business development approach is hopelessly ineffective.

John L

Solidarity as a fellow career changer. It took me much more work than expected to get a training contract, and ironically if my CV was 10yrs less experienced, I would have breezed through it. The whole process, including SJTs, were geared only towards students. It was very odd to have to recall GCSEs and A-Levels again.

LPC >> SQE / actual insights

Great, unbiased article. I have been working in an international law firm for the past 3 years, 2 of which during my LLB and let me tell you – not one solicitor from real estate to corporate know or NEED to know all of the info for the SQE 1. At least the LPC gave recent graduates some actual practical knowledge that I learnt after all my time in the firm. Considering some TCs are given to recent graduates- dont we need to equip them with practical knowledge than make them learn again all essential modules? You bet the clients havent asked the solicitors in real estate once any criminal law qs. How does the SQE 1 specifically help future solicitors? If you want to do family law you do not need to know the inns and outs of real estate, thats why it’s great that the UK legal market is differentiated!
I will not be wasting my time learning by heart information that I will not use or need. I would much rather get into more debt and fund the LPC myself in order to get some practical knowledge than to wait for a TC only to be axed if I dont pass this ridiculous exam.

MC Junior Associate

I think the thing which is annoying people the most about the SQE debacle is how utterly unnecessary it all was. The LPC pathway had no discernable problems whatsoever, and had produced multiple generations of excellent lawyers. The SQE was an answer to a non-existent question, wrapped up in DEI-speak to make it sound more compelling.

Northern

I’m afraid I disagree with you here, the SQE has opened up the legal profession to those already working in law (paralegals, secretaries etc). I’m a qualified legal advisor working full time and it would have taken me 6 years to do the GDL and LPC part time and a training contract. The SQE should allow me to qualify in 2 years.

Critic

Yes, but the question is will those doing QWE actually get NQ positions? Or is it just providing people with false hope?

TC sponsored student

A lot of people have been saying SQE1 discriminates against neurodivergent students. I’m neurodivergent and starting SQE1 prep soon… can people who’ve had experience detail how it’s discriminatory so at least I’m prepared? What extra challenges do I face?

Billy John

Neurodiverse graduate from a low-income family background here, and I am very passionate about the legal field. However due to the current state of the SQE, I am sure that I will never be able to take the SQE, as I could never afford the costs, and even if a firm was to sponsor me there is almost no way that I could possibly pass on the first try, since they seem to have made it the most unfriendly exam towards neurodivergent individuals. It’s trully a shame that students now have to choose between their own mental health and going into the field they love, and that after all the progress that firms have tried to make to increase diversity the opposite is the result, thanks to the SRA’s brilliant decision-making.

Northern

I’m afraid I disagree with you here, the SQE has opened up the legal profession to those already working in law (paralegals, secretaries etc). I’m a qualified legal advisor working full time and it would have taken me 6 years to do the GDL and LPC part time and a training contract. The SQE should allow me to qualify in 2 years.

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