Controversy surrounding rescinding training contract offers from future trainees after they fail the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) on their first try has divided elite City firms.

Where Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May have been reported to have rescinded training contract offers from future trainees who have failed SQE1 on their first attempt, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters are understood to have taken a more sympathetic approach.

Craig Montgomery, partner and training principal at Freshfields, said: “We recognise that the SQE is a new and challenging assessment regime and we are pleased with the firm’s high pass rates achieved from the City Consortium Solicitor Training Programme to date.

“While we reserve the right to withdraw offers if assessments are not passed, we consider all circumstances and speak to the individuals before coming to a decision. To date, we have allowed resits in almost all cases, and have provided additional financial support, as well as covering all exam fees.

“We will continue to keep this policy under review and remain committed to investing in our carefully-selected future talent.”

Though there is the suggestion that Freshfields has rescinded some offers for SQE first-timers, a policy that continues to remain under review can allow its future trainees to breathe a sigh of relief.

Freshfields forms part of the ‘City Consortium’, a group of six firms partnered with legal education provider BPP University to train its future trainees for the SQE. Other firms in the city consortium include Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, Norton Rose Fulbright and Slaughter and May.

The Lawyer understands that Linklaters also allows and funds a resit for future trainees who fail SQE on their first attempt. This is understood to be a continuation of its policy for the former Legal Practice Course (LPC).

On the other hand, both Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May have been reported to have let offer-holders go.

A spokesperson for Slaughter and May said: “We don’t comment on individual situations, but each instance is assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Firms outside of the elite City firms are taking a variety of approaches to this controversial issue. CMS, which hires around 95 trainee solicitors every year, has been reported to have let offer-holders go, whereas The Lawyer understands that HSF has held firm and allowed all those who have failed SQE1 to resit.

A spokesperson for CMS added: “While we hold the expectation for successful completion of the SQE examinations on the first attempt, we understand that occasional setbacks may occur. Considering the recent SQE1 results, we have regretfully withdrawn certain training contract offers. However, we have diligently evaluated each circumstance individually. We maintain ongoing communication with all our students to ensure they are informed about and utilising the additional support resources at their disposal, should the need arise.”

Rescinding training contracts after a first attempt is not a policy change for many firms. Some firms would typically rescind training contract offers after a first failed attempt at the LPC.

With the SQE being in its first few years of delivery, however, The City of London Law Society issued advice in March 2023 citing the potential issues of recission. The advice included “interplay with the ethical duty to support students who have been required to undertake SQE rather than LPC in the former’s early stages” and the “potential negative publicity for the firm known to be withdrawing the training contract, which could be felt through the next few years”.

Future lawyers have been taking to social media in the days following the January 2024 SQE1 results to express dissatisfaction with the delivery of SQE.

Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy have been contacted for comment.

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