In the days following the announcement of January’s SQE1 results last week, budding lawyers flocked to social media to share their own experiences of the gruelling 10-hour, multiple choice exam.

The exam tests students at the level they would be expected to operate at as a newly-qualified solicitor. In the SRA’s words: “The SQE means that everyone who becomes a solicitor will be assessed in a consistent way and to the same high standards.”

For City firm apprentices who have been practising the law for close to seven years, failing SQE1 has raised questions over the assessment’s accuracy.

A solicitor apprentice who didn’t pass part of their SQE1 commented:

“It’s absolutely devastating to fall at the final hurdle so close to qualification. It’s also confusing and hurtful that, after such a successful time in the workplace, the SRA did not deem me competent due to my performance in one five-hour-long multiple choice exam…

“The pressure in the lead up to these exams was crushing and the preparation from September – January saw some of the most challenging and exhausting months of my life”.

For those who work full-time alongside their studies, including City firm apprentices, the pressure is palpable.

Another student who has been a full-time paralegal for nearly three years and is studying part-time with the University of Law commented:

“I think anyone in this position should remember that these exams are deliberately designed to be extremely difficult. A lot of us are also working full time and studying, which only adds to the intensity of trying to learn and recall a really large syllabus”.

SQE1 and SQE2 form part of the new qualification process for solicitors in England and Wales, with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) being slowly phased out until 2032.

SQE1 must be passed before undertaking SQE2 and comprises two exams, five hours each containing ‘functional legal knowledge’ (FLK). FLK1 and FLK2 are closed-book exams of 180 multiple choice, ‘single-best answer questions’ (SBAQs) each.

For those who passed the exam, which warrants a 51 per cent pass rate, commentators showed solidarity with those who missed out sometimes by even a few marks.

A future trainee solicitor in the City commented: “The volume of content students are expected to memorise is unsustainably large and made up of elements a qualified solicitor would normally look up.

“An MCQ-based assessment also leaves no room for any nuance in thinking, which is normally part and parcel of a solicitor’s job. In summary, this is not an assessment style that prepares you for real life.”

The first sittings of SQE were piloted in November 2021 and there are typically two sittings each year in January and July. Future lawyers who retake even one of the two SQE1 exams have to wait up to six months before they are able to resit, delaying their qualification plans.

The SQE1 pass mark is determined based on scaled scoring, and will therefore change with each sitting. An SRA report on pass rates for the January 2024 sitting can be expected in mid-April.

Previous SRA reporting has shown large discrepancies in pass rates between white candidates and those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and is being monitored by the regulator.