Why it’s not too late to save the SQE

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By Nigel Savage on


Amid marking howlers and failure to deliver on transparency pledges, the profession is losing confidence in the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam. It all boils down to lack of leadership, says legal education godfather Professor Nigel Savage. Will anyone step up?

Now that the dust has settled on the SQE exam results fiasco, it’s a good time to reflect. We’ve all made mistakes; the test is how you handle them with swift comms and appropriate sensitivity.

Judging by the student response across social media and websites like Legal Cheek, I’m not sure that happened. I know anecdotally from my own network that there are serious issues in the administration of the SQE.

However, that shouldn’t detract from the strategy. I supported the reform and its already delivering on some of the objectives. The concept of qualifying work experience instead of the training contract has removed a huge bottle neck, particularly for paralegals and the apprenticeship market will eventually restore the old five-year route of qualifying entirely from within the workplace.

Undergraduate law schools cannot ignore the SQE and do so at their peril. They will be judged on their outputs and cannot lay all the blame on the new prep providers. Meanwhile, there is greater competitive pressure from new providers, some of whom have brought substantial investment into the market from overseas.

So where has SQE creator the Solicitor Regulation Authority (SRA) fallen short? The strategy was right, but they have failed to deliver on tactics. To borrow a quote from warfare: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory”, which is presumably why the SRA are saying there will be no changes for ten years. I attended some of the early meetings where we were assured that the SRA would publish league tables on where candidates completed their law degrees and prep courses. Indeed, it was a requirement raised in the Legal Services Board (LSB) approval when they stated: “it is essential that the SRA delivers on its commitments to monitoring and evaluation including making all reports, data and assessment of these for public consumption”.

The SQE Hub: Your ultimate resource for all things SQE

There doesn’t seem to be any immediate prospect of publication, the excuse being that such data is not available. Surely if the application form to register for the SQE required students to provide that information it would already be available. Given the SRA’s wider responsibility in terms of consumer protection (not to mention the LSB) it is surely in the public interest for all students, parents and employers to have access to this data given the level of investment they are making in the profession.

It has always been argued that the data requirement shouldn’t extend to undergraduate schools because they are regulated by other bodies, but those regulators won’t have access to such data and are not likely to ask for it unless the SRA supply it. The American Bar Association publishes annually a comprehensive set of data for all accredited law schools on success rates in the State Bar exams as a form of consumer protection — and they have 198 schools and 117,000 students to manage!

I think there is a marked lack of interest, leadership and ownership in the sector from the LSB, the Law Society and the SRA, especially in representing the interests of the student consumers making their way through the system. I think some of the tactical issues are falling between the gaps as between regulation and membership — and amid the posturing much of what the Law Society used to engage in to support the framework has been forgotten.

LawCAB provides real support for student applicants and does some gathering of data, plus there are some excellent pockets of tactical leadership such as the recent initiatives emanating from the City of London Law Society. The danger is that such leadership is fragmented and leads to duplication of scarce resources. I saw this happen many years when the pro-bono movement gathered speed, lots of very worthy projects but not co-ordinated which resulted huge duplication of resources eventually mitigated by the appointment of a Pro-bono Tsar.

Universities are facing the perfect storm, with law schools — even research-led ones — facing huge challenges which put at risk their very existence and work in key areas such as justice, diversity and overseas links. Such law schools are now located in ‘Super Faculties’ where they compete for resources with other disciplines who may be supported by external organisations which are more vociferous and proactive than their legal counterparts. I well remember when the Legal Practice Course (LPC) was first introduced, and the Law Society appointed the fearsome Paulene Collins to manage validation visits and rate providers on a scale of excellent to unsatisfactory. If the provider was not providing sufficient resource, or falling short on key issues such as diversity, they would be highlighted in the report. That provided a framework to address changing patterns in the legal services market and highlight real innovation . That no longer exists and the market has to be informed on the basis of social media and marketing puff.

In the area of apprenticeships some vice chancellors are reluctant to support them because they are regulated and monitored by OFSTED and inspectors may not have sufficient expertise in some degree level fields. Surely the SRA and Law Society could train individuals with specialist expertise to join such panels and work with OFSTED to encourage more universities to embrace the route?

There has been much innovation across the sector, particularly the SME sector, but I have been surprised by how much of the old training contract regime has been retained in the City firms. I thought that the SQE would provoke some radical changes not least driven by the Richard Susskind future of law agenda ,with a reduction in the numbers but much greater investment in professional development, taking recruits to a higher level quicker. Instead, the firms are engaging in a remuneration battle which is just driving up their cost base.

I guess my main point is that there doesn’t seem be any ‘ownership’ of legal education in its broadest sense. If the findings of the recent University of Exeter Report are to be implemented regulators are going to have to be more interventionist. There must be a clear role for the Law Society in coordinating the tactical issues for aspirant solicitors, but they are hidebound by the fact that they cannot admit students — or anyone else — into membership. I also feel that much more could be done to make the new qualification more accessible to students overseas by setting up test centres in key jurisdictions. Global legal services are an important sector for the UK economy and encouraging lawyers overseas to acquire the professional status without the need to travel would add value to sustaining the pre-eminence of English law globally.

Professor Nigel Savage previously ran three law schools under three different solicitor qualifying regimes. He led Nottingham Law School through the switch from Law Society Finals to the LPC, was then the CEO of The University of Law and finally headed up The College of Legal Practice as it launched to deliver the SQE. He no longer has any law school affiliations.


Worried lecturer

The problem is Kaplan. It might not be too late to save the SQE now but it probably will be in 8 years time after their contract for handling the exam has come to an end.


The SQE was a nice idea in theory but has been awful in practice. Given the state of the legal profession’s regulators that was entirely predictable. Say what you want about the vocational law schools but they are competent and ran a functional training regime in the LPC


Don’t forget that LPC has been around for decades, anything new is always at the primacy and will require time to adjust to perfection, let’s give SQE chance because it offers a greater opportunity to aspiring lawyer unlike LPC route.


The whole idea of the SQE is incredibly stupid! Allowing people without law degrees AND without being in the UK to qualify should be out of discussion! Would you allow a doctor without a medical degree to operate on you, just because they passed some exams?! NO! I literally have freaking hairdressers on my SQE1 prep course who are attempting the exam. I have people from Ukraine and Syria on my course! It just proves no one cares about the profession and SRA is ONLY interested in lining their pockets!!!


This country has always allowed those without Law Degrees to become lawyers. The SQE hasn’t changed this.


The writer does not seem to understand the difficulties of publishing pass rates, where many students use multiple providers and at the same time need to select only one provider with whom they have trained, at the time of their booking rather that when they sit the exam. I can’t see how the SRA can publish any reliable data under such circumstances.

Archibald O'Pomposity

“People from Ukraine and Syria”

What is your problem with that, friend?

Norman the Conqueror

Passive aggressive?

SQE student

I don’t think “ The concept of qualifying work experience instead of the training contract has removed a huge bottle neck” is the correct statement and is seen as advantage of SQE. The bottle neck has moved to the NQ level and paralegals who couldn’t get a TC were led to believe that with SQE they can break into the profession but sadly, employers would still not consider them for NQ roles and keep the standardised training contract route




Yes, this is the point – it means people are led up the garden path – they think wow I can qualify after my 2 years of work at the citizen’s advice doing voluntary work and after my level 7 diploma in rock studies can self study for SQE1 and 2. The person passes BUT they have been sold a pup – they qualify but can never get a job. This is in a way worse than the older system.

Elite US

The legal profession shouldn’t allow non-law graduate to become solicitors of this country. If you don’t read law in your first degree it’s fine – return to uni and complete a JD.

There are too many solicitors and quality control is key to maintain standards.

Magic circle is the way

you flop. did some non law law in ur cohort get a better mark than u and ur upset? Did they not raise the salary at ur ‘elite’ US firm? Boohoo. Enjoy working all weekends.

*Elite BS

Do you also think Jonathan Sumption is a less capable lawyer, KC, Supreme Court judge for not having a law degree?

Law with senior status senior associate

Sumption could have been even better if he read law, who knows.

Just because a non-law degree has helped someone intellectually grow (as any discipline at any decent uni would – hopefully), it doesn’t mean you can do away with learning how to think like a jurist and engage in legal reasoning.

Do a degree that you like – but that shouldn’t mean you can skip (or cram in the form of the willy nilly GDL) a full-time degree.

Archibald O'Pomposity

“Sumption could have been even better if he read law, who knows.”

His legal acumen, I think we’d all agree, was/is way above average in the profession. Hardly a valid argument in favour of insisting on a law degree in order to maintain standards, you daft sod.


Extremely bright non-law graduates would be able to navigate any qualification pathway you put in front of them. That doesn’t mean the system doesn’t need changing. It’s like saying the SQE is perfectly fine because supreme court judges would be able to pass it.

No it’s not Diane.

First. Your comment. Who said the SQE was perfectly fine? Have a read again of the comments – apply that properly legally trained mind.

Second. Senior status (sir, honourable, idk how to address you). “Sumption could have been even better if he read law, who knows”. There we go, you are right, who knows?, let’s therefore make it obligatory that everyone studies law. End of.

Mind you, these are people who are so good at law that as judges and even as barristers they have an impact on the direction of the law itself. We are talking about solicitors here… I’m a solicitor and could be doing the job I’m doing now without the GDL – there’s no magic, just be moderately bright enough and give up your evenings and weekends 🙂

Archibald O'Pomposity

Were you given a name at birth? If so, would you care to use it when commenting publicly?


Multiple choice is not the way to go. I would prefer a mixture of MCQ and more usual type of law questions.

Kaplan should allow the big providers like BPP and UoL to block book their candidates for the exam and take the fees from their candidates so students do not have to deal with Kaplan at all as that is part of the problem – hours trying to log on, book etc etc.

Kaplan’s contract should have much harsher liquidated damages if even one student finds its paper was not marked – some people have not had marks included for sections of the paper which is unacceptable and told some they had failed when they had not so they lost their TC. Firms should not have to assume Kaplan has it wrong! I know one good firm where 25% of TC were withdrawn.

I would like to know if contextual candidates with sponsored TCs are the ones of the sponsored set of trainees who are failing or not.

50% failed the Finals course I did in the 80s. 50% failed the LPC and about 50% fail SQE so nothing new there. If most students who have done well in all exams their whole lives are failing however then there is an SQE fault.

Deed U No

I ❤️ MCQ’s

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