As pass rates for the first stage of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) stagnate at a 52 per cent average for 2022/23, City firm recruiters and early careers leaders are voicing concerns about their future pipeline planning.

Certainly, a consistent pass rate confirms the goals of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to create what it calls a “single rigorous assessment designed to assure consistent, high standards for all qualifying solicitors” and is somewhat reassuring for SQE sceptics. However, with pass rates remaining so low, firms and recruiters are beginning to speculate about what this means for recruitment of future trainee solicitors.

With only two sittings of SQE1 per year, one in January and one in July, should firm-sponsored candidates need to resit six months later, their sponsored firm’s training contract structure could be in for a major reshuffle.

If a firm allows its SQE candidates to resit – unlike some of the magic circle firms The Lawyer has reported on recently – then questions arise on how to mitigate the risk of half a potential trainee cohort not being around to start on the date they were supposed to.

An early talent head for one City firm is already planning for this potential crisis. For firms that recruit future trainees two years in advance, law school would typically finish just before the training contract start date. However, said this head, including a ‘gap year’ of sorts between the end of law school and the beginning of the training contract would allow for those who do not pass the SQE first time to resit without disrupting their planned start date at the firm.

They added: “I would rather have the people due to start in September 2026 take the SQE in 2024/25 rather than 2025/26, then offer them some paralegal or part-time work, rather have to do it the other way around.

“We’re trying to mitigate our risk, as we could suddenly end up commercially having to operate with half the trainees that we’ve normally had – how do we buffer that?”

The Lawyer also spoke with a legal recruiter for City firms who specialises in the graduate market, who said: “One of the things that I would expect to see, and that I think firms probably need to be given a bit of leeway with, is that there probably will now be a higher rate of attrition with those doing qualifying work experience to those who go on to become a lawyer.

“I think what you’ll start to see is probably similar to the university undergraduate landscape, where some firms will start to make conditional offers and some firms may make unconditional offers to those who they deem to be stronger candidates.”

What is clear is that the lack of transparency from the SRA on the variation in pass rates is causing real confusion. Firms and employers are unable to sufficiently plan for bumps in the road in the likely event their sponsored candidates fail.

The SRA does not currently provide pass rates per provider or across self-funding versus sponsored candidates.

Some providers have now started to publish their own pass rates. However, the data can be limited due to providers only being able to report the data that candidates voluntarily report to them. This leaves firms and employers unable to make informed decisions on their SQE journey-planning.

For more insight regarding the SQE following the most recent set of results, check out The Lawyer Podcast here.