Law students weigh in on firms’ treatment of SQE trainees

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By Legal Cheek on

22

Some call for resits, others say rescinding TCs is the right call


After revealing that some City law firms are withdrawing training contract offers from students who have not passed the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), Legal Cheek posed a question to law student following: How should law firms treat students who fail these demanding exams?

Taking aim at those firms who cut ties, one student told us that “too often, law firms apply one rule to everyone as a way of ostensibly making the fairest decisions but equality doesn’t necessarily result in equity”. They went on to suggest that firms “deal with failures on a case-by-case basis and consider personal background, circumstances, attributes, and other factors”.

Others also noted that “failing one exam (even in the absence of mitigating circumstances) does not [necessarily] indicate poor performance”.

Another commenter emphasised the “key role” that law firms have “in supporting trainees through the SQE:

“Long-term, fostering a culture of continuous learning, flexible work arrangements, and mentoring can transform setbacks into growth opportunities. Encouraging resilience and adaptability not only helps trainees rebound but also strengthens the firm’s reputation as a nurturing and progressive environment.”

The SQE Hub: Your ultimate resource for all things SQE

However, several commenters came to the defence of firms that have decided to part ways with TC holders who failed to pass the SQE on their first attempt. “Securing a TC is highly competitive,” one student wrote, “and many capable individuals who pass the SQE on their first attempt never obtain one. Clearly, they didn’t deserve it.”

Another claimed that the “SQE pass rate is already high enough” and “is a minimum criterion, not a particularly notable achievement”. Other students suggested firms could “level the playing field” by only accepting TC applications from those who have already passed the exams, while others repeated their calls to scrap the SQE altogether.

Following news of training contract offers being rescinded, the chair of the City of London Law Society’s training committee, Patrick McCann, repeated his call for law firms to adopt a more supportive approach towards aspiring lawyers sitting the “extremely challenging” exam.

McCann told Legal Cheek, “I’d urge all law firms to engage with their future talent who need to retake their first attempt at SQE1″. He added that, “SQE1 is an extremely challenging assessment, testing against NQ knowledge criteria (with most sponsored students undergoing the assessment more than two years before solicitor qualification), with a pass rate only just above 50%, very significantly below the pass rates for LPC, which SQE replaces.”

How do you think firms should treat those that fail the SQE? Give us your thoughts in the comments below 👇

22 Comments

SQE1 detractor

What a nonsense.

I sat the January SQE1 exams and they were by FAR the hardest exams I have ever sat. I understand and agree that they are supposed to be challenging, as they should be for entry to the legal profession, but the very fact they are set at the level of knowledge of an NQ whereas City firms invariably expect students to sit them before even starting their TC indicates firms should show leniency and understanding when some of their students understandably fail.

It is demonstrably possible to pass the SQE first time, and pass it well, but the SQE is still a harder exam than the LPC, and failing it does not mean the student would make a poor trainee or solicitor. An MCQ is a horrible way to test someone’s ability to practice law, and the “single best answer” model actually punishes students who can see nuance and can argue from multiple positions, which is a characteristic of a strong solicitor.

Law firms didn’t want the SQE, law schools didn’t want the SQE, law students didn’t want the SQE, it is not demonstrably a better way to assess someone’s ability to practice law, and failing it first time should be met with compassion and understanding, not a blanket withdrawal of a TC offer.

Grad Wreck

Not to invalidate any of your points, but I work in a law firm and I was in favour of the SQE and I still am. I also know lots of other people in the profession who are.

Getting people to sit an external exam to ensure everyone who passes meets the same threshold is a positive change. There were too many variables with the old system.

p.s. our firm wasn’t one of the ones who rescinded TC offers. We do allow resists as we appreciate it is a harder exam.

typical

Strange how everyone ‘in favour’ of the SQE are the ones who don’t actually have to sit & pass it

Al

“…work in a law firm and I was in favour of the SQE and I still am”, interesting that u are in favour of the SQE, I wonder why. Well, I guess the fact that u’r already LPC-qualified and have job has nothing to do with it.

Archibald O'Pomposity

“the SQE is still a harder exam than the LPC, and failing it does not mean the student would make a poor trainee or solicitor.”

We’re content to accept false negatives if the positives are more likely to be reliable. Those who dislike a challenging exam should reconsider their choice of career.

Associate

Having passed the SQE at the first attempt, I think law firms should allow one resit, especially if a student missed the threshold just by a few marks. However, awarding second, or third, resit would be insane unless there are some genuine mitigating circumstances.
In general, I think when it comes to training contracts, the structure should go like this (indeed it’s been applied by a few law firms from what I’ve heard):
– SQE1 prep before TC
– SQE1 exam before TC, one chance at resit
– SQE2 prep during TC alongside working experience (since this exam is more practical, candidly I went to it with almost no preparation because I figured I should know by then how to write an email, do a case study, or research task – and I was right, I scored 85% with maybe 2 weeks of exam prep, I massively relied on my actual experience to complete these tasks)
– SQE2 exam sometime at the TC / 1 year mark, again one chance at resit (although here I am more hesitant with resits because by then students should know how to perform basic tasks outlined above)

I will also add that I completed both exams alongside working full-time, during a particularly busy time at that, so maybe it is my survivorship bias talking, but I think these exams, while hard, are not impossible to pass and with enough prep and grit, most students should be able to do just that. However, SQE1 is a special kind of beast (side note: remember how people over here were moaning one/two years ago that the exams are going to be too easy? oh how the turntables!), so I think it warrants at least one chance at resit before someone loses their TC.

Trainee Supervisor

I was of the opinion that rescinding a TC for failing the SQE was fair enough. Top Law firms want the best and will pay well above the national median wage to a 22 year old straight from university.

But then I did some of the mock questions on the SRA website the other day (if that isn’t a recession indicator for how quiet some transactional teams are, I don’t know what is…). I am 8PQE at a Silver Circle firm and didn’t get much more than 25%. I can confidently say the vast majority of my team would fail it other than the select few who are superb black letter lawyers. Obvious caveat that this is without any studying, but therefore is an indicator that it’s just a memory test, not testing what makes a good lawyer.

So much of it either isn’t relevant to working at some of the firms who are rescinding TCs, and most of the questions I got wrong were things I am sure, if it came up in practice, I would double check before advising a client on, even if I thought I knew it.

The LPC was a bit of a joke, but at least it taught some basic principles of problem solving and a little bit on how to actually apply knowledge in practice. From what I’ve seen, the SQE is a bit of a failure.

There are many things I look for in the trainees I supervise, and I’ve never once thought it would be valuable if they knew the personal tax rate on dividends off the top of their heads.

Grad Wreck

I understand the point of view, but should we really expect anyone to pass SQE1 without any prep regardless of their experience? I’m not sure I’d pass my driving test if I sat it this afternoon even though I’ve been driving for 20 years. Or would you even pass a contract law module exam if you sat it today…

I think for a long time the legal profession as been an outlier in regards to professionals qualifications. For accountants, finance professions etc, they will often tell you their professional qualifications were the hardest exams they sat. I think law is now just aligning with the usual professional qualification model – general external exams that ensure everyone is up to the same minimum standard.

Trainee Supervisor

I did caveat it by saying I hadn’t done any studying. The point was also that I don’t think it is an exam that shows you know how to be a practicing lawyer.

Not quite the same as something like accountancy as anyone with any degree can do their CA exams. Previously, for law, you just needed a qualifying law degree that meant you had studied Tort, Contract, Crim, Trusts etc. Someone doing a CA or CFA won’t necessarily have studied accounting or economics at Uni to get the necessary grounding for those professions

It’s just changing the minimum standard from “passing a qualifying law degree + LPC + two years of qualifying work experience” to “any degree + passing the SQE + two years qualifying work experience”. I don’t see how it meets the stated aim of making the law more accessible when, at best, it removes the need to do the GDL for those with non-law degrees. The two years of qualifying work experience was also already there. One of my paralegals is about to become qualified under that route.

You still need someone to sign off your two years of training and realistically, every firm will back their own ability to train someone over 2 years whether they have an SQE or not.

Grad Wreck

I think you are looking at this through the lens of commercial law firms though. We have the benefit of hiring great people and we generally train people very well. You can’t say that for the whole industry. The SQE ensures every qualified solicitor meets the same minimum standard. Essentially the SRA is ensuring high standards for the people who use legal services.

Re the accessibility point. The SRA wanted to get rid of the “LPC gamble” – which it has done. People can now qualify without having to self-fund the LPC in the hope they will get a TC in the future – which thousands of people did without success. That needed to be addressed. The old system only worked if you got a TC.

Anyone can now qualify if they have a degree, pass SQE 1&2 and have two years of QWE (not necessarily a 2-year TC).

Even though commercial firms are setting up their recruitment to look like the old model, it does allow much more flexibly for the industry as a whole and allows people to qualify without a law firm offering them a TC. This was a real bottleneck issue.

We might not see the changes so starkly in commercial firms, but the SQE can certainly open up the profession.

7 years PQE

As Trainee Supervisor above pointed out, you could always qualify without a TC previously under the Equivalent Means route (which is building a portfolio of work across 2 years) and submit this to the SRA to qualify instead of a traditional TC.

Passed SQE1 on second attempt

Wait until you realise the mock questions on the SRA website are actually way easier than the exam. This is a standardised exam without standardised course materials or enough past questions. Your training provider and the past questions you’re able to do have a huge impact on whether one passes SQE1. It’s unfair to be harsh with students that don’t have all the resources they need to pass like they did with the LPC.

Ron Shelf

Having passed the SQE on the first attempt, I think that anyone who fails should be barred from ever qualifying as a solicitor.

Had I failed the exam, I would think that anyone who fails should be allowed to resit at no cost and should automatically be offered a TC at a magic circle firm.

Revert

Love this; not sure if the people downvoting get the humour and self-awareness though.

realist

They were no harder than FHS, really. I agree that rescinding an offer is harsh, unjustified even after just one fail considering how many circumstances are involved, but they’re doable.

I don’t think this culture that they’re impossible is fostering anything other than panic.

Peanut Gallery

US law firms often cut a lot of folks for failing the Bar Exam, although most will allow one re-sit. Sounds like you’re just catching up to the rest of us!

KSI

The issue isn’t the fact that firms are taking away TCs or that the exam is hard. It’s a terrible argument to say that students should be allowed to resit sqe1/ firms should be lenient because it’s hard.

Firms aren’t the problem- it’s the SRA and Kaplan who are to blame here. Past papers need to be released, technical issues need to be resolved and generally more transparency is needed to make the exam fair (not necessarily easier).

TDP

As a qualified solicitor of some years, my view is that having a baseline qualification, such as the SQE, is helpful in understanding the minimum I can expect from NQs. Other experience will help with career progression, but to get in the door, I just want someone who I am confident can understand what I’m saying to them, be expected to act reasonably in undertaking their work and turn up on time. Some of this comfort will come from the SQE qualification. Some will come from the interview.

I don’t know how difficult the SQE is, but I feel that the best approach is to allow at least one retake before cancelling training contracts, unless the candidate has clearly not bothered (e.g. not turned up to exams with no reasonable justification).

It is a stressful stage in life trying to establish a career in law, and being good at exams is not everything. The fact that someone is prepared to re-sit them after failing the first time tells me that the person is persistent and able to cope with (and hopefully overcome) initial failure. These are good qualities in any employee, including solicitors.

HD

I’d like to point out that trainees at these firms were due to get compensated way more than regular candidates from in-house or small law firms. Such high compensation itself should be an indicator that they only accept best, and as sad as it is, the chance of securing TC should be passed to someone who passed.

We do talk how unfair it is that someone may have their offer withdrawn when failing, but how fair it is that so many of those who passed were nowhere near securing TC for various reasons?

There are many more places to train than magic circle. I don’t want to be devil’s advocate, but imagine how many trainees will be dismissed mid way through their training (considering that now TC can be completed in up to 4 firms).

As much as I feel sorry for those who failed, they likely were also paid by their TC provider to study, whilst others passed whilst working full-time and perhaps they deserve it more.

CTC

I agree with you. I don’t see how being cut from a TC application process at offer stage because you failed the SQE is that different from being cut from the process because you didn’t meet the minimum A’Level grades or because you failed a Watson Glaser test.

Ultimately though, in all of these scenarios, it says something about a firm where the main criteria for getting people through the door is based on how good they are at passing academic tests, over and above their personal attributes. People can decide for themselves whether that ‘something’ is a good thing, or not….

Anon

The SQE is discriminatory towards the neurodiverse who struggle with things like exams. It’s not a pathway to equity in the legal profession. The SRA needs to implement a handicap system based on individual intelligence, so those with lower IQ get automatically marked up, while those who are overly intelligent are marked down. Seems a logical way of ensuring equity and diversity amongst candidates.

MC Associate

Resilience, eloquence, strong time management skills, the ability to build rapport with strangers – these are the skills I want to see in the trainees I work with. And none of these are the skills that are tested by a multiple-choice legal examination. In fact, the very nature of a multiple-choice examination destroys the careful nuance that is so central to our profession, and rewards inarticulate mediocrities at the expense of people who can express complicated thoughts and arguments in writing.

And so corporate law – and the City more generally – turns into the refuge of the dullards and the tidy-minded, of mechanical-minded pen-pushers with no personality. People like this are incapable of building anything new, of winning the confidence of clients, of becoming leaders. But it does increasingly feel like having a personality or being a ‘character’ is something which the powers that be™ despise and want to see extirpated.

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