Though feared by some and sneered at by others, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) is already a fact of life that cannot be wished away.
While surely being a demanding form of assessment, it has all chances of making the legal profession more accessible and eliminating the bottleneck of a training contract.
If you are one of those law or non-law graduates who look forward to the opportunities offered by the superexam, you are welcome to join us for today’s brief talk!
It will take a look at stage 2 of the new route to qualifying as a solicitor of England and Wales, and help you gain a better understanding of:
- what is assessed in SQE 2
- what time frames are set for sitting the exam
- what is included in its oral and written assessments
- what learning strategies can help with passing stage 2
- what to look for in a preparation course.
SQE2 exam methodology
SQE stage 2 is a unique practical legal skills assessment adapted from medical education. At its core is the use of standardised clients and standard work practices aimed at testing the legal professionals’ ability to perform the roles and tasks required in their job.
As a tool for testing health care professionals, the methodology involved in SQE two has been used in the UK and most of the US and Canadian medical schools since 1975: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3191703/.
In the legal domain, this mode of assessment allows testing much more than the aspiring solicitors’ functioning legal knowledge – which is the focus in SQE 1 with its multiple choice questions.
Being a reliable, valid and objective assessment tool (as proved by pilot results), SQE 2 seeks to evaluate their competence, as well as major practical skills needed for a successful legal career: those of effective communication, problem-solving and decision-making.
Research into a simulation-based skills assessment proves it to be not only more objective compared to traditional assessment methods, but also less likely to cause test anxiety in students.
SQE2 assessment structure
As SQE 2 is designed to assess candidates’ core legal skills – both oral and written – it is logically split into two parts.
This two-stage design of the superexam was tested in the SQE2 pilot assessments held in December 2019. Based on their findings, the model of assessment used for SQE pilot stage 2 has proved suitable for the purposes of the live SQE 2.
The organisation and delivery of SQE 2 is outlined in the SRA’s SQE2 assessment specification posted on 14 October 2020.
SQE2 oral part uses oral simulations in order to test the aspiring solicitor’s performance in two activities (called stations):
- client interview followed by an attendance note with legal analysis of the issues raised by the client (in 2 contexts: Property Practice, and Wills and Intestacy, Probate Administration and Practice)
- advocacy (in 2 contexts: Dispute Resolution, and Criminal Litigation).
The biggest challenge in both oral SQE2 assessments is their interactive character: you have to find your way with a mock client played by an actor in an interview, and with a judge played by a solicitor of England and Wales in an advocacy session.
Another challenge here is timing. The task in a SQE 2 mock advocacy station – delivering a piece of courtroom advocacy to a judge present in the room – must be carried out within 15 minutes.
Before starting their submission to the judge, aspiring solicitors have 45 minutes to study the file of documents available in the case.
In a mock interview, searching for information provided to the client, taking basic interview notes, and outlining next steps available to the client, must all be completed within 25 minutes.
Based on the information obtained during the client interview, the SQE candidate is required to produce a handwritten attendance note/legal analysis.
Here, the elements to be included are:
- analysis of legal issues identified by the partner in the email and by the client in the mock interview
- initial advice for the client
- appropriate next steps.
As set out in the SRA’s assessment specification above, in SQE2 written part, an aspiring solicitor completes four stations based on written simulations and conducted over 3 days:
- case and matter analysis
- legal research
- legal writing
- legal drafting
Each day, the same four stations above are conducted in different practice contexts (practice areas):
- Day 1: 2 stations in Dispute resolution, and 2 stations in Criminal litigation
- Day 2: 2 stations in Property practice, and 2 stations in Wills and intestacy, Probate administration and practice
- Day 3: all 4 stations in Business organisations, rules and procedures.
All written SQE2 assessments are computer-based, so a decent typing speed and the knowledge of how to save time with shortcuts cannot be stressed enough.
The tasks set for this stage of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination are as follows:
For seasoned lawyers with substantial work experience at law firms, navigating all these various professional activities within such strict time limits can be smooth and seamless.
However, younger members of the legal profession, or candidates without a law degree may face significant challenges – if not exposed to sufficient practice before sitting the law exam.
That brings us to perhaps the most crucial questions – what exam preparation strategy to rely on, and how to approach a search for SQE preparation courses.
As you can hopefully see for yourself, your SQE 2 results will clearly depend on 2 factors:
- your knowledge of the law: substantive law combined with procedural law and ethics, which are integrated into functioning legal knowledge (FLK), and
- the level of experience you have with oral and written legal skills.
Building upon the knowledge gained in the course of SQE 1 preparation will surely contribute to your success with SQE 2.
At the same time, being carried out through multiple choice questions, the Functioning Legal Knowledge assessment disregards the skills element.
That means the SQE 2 skills that are outside the SQE 1 exam require thorough training. Based on that, one of the best ways to prepare for SQE stage 2 seems putting your knowledge and skills into practice.
Numerous experiments (learn more here: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf have clearly proved practice testing to be more effective in long-term retention of knowledge than spending the same amount of time on rereading:
While students can generally benefit from any type of practice test, there are some particularly recommended to aspiring solicitors of England and Wales.
One possibility is self-testing – for example via flashcards. Flashcards are more effective because they require recall from memory, compared for example to multiple-choice tests which ask you to recognise the correct answer.
However, doing individual mocks and thus putting your knowledge and skills into practice can be one of the best ways to get through the SQE assessments – particularly, if carried out as part of your SQE preparation course, under the supervision of a knowledgeable and experienced mentor.
Your SQE2 preparation сourse
Considering the approach to effective preparation for SQE two above, it seems logical to look for practice-based courses. Their key components should be individual mock sessions with one-to-one feedback.
Conducting mock client interviews and advocacy sessions within the framework of an SQE preparation course will be beneficial for both your skills and knowledge in that it will:
- improve your interactive skills by engaging you in individual interactions with a client (in an interview) or a solicitor (in advocacy)
- involve you in legal fact-finding
- let you practice in forming and performing your negotiation strategy
- teach you to manage your time in a SQE 2 mock station
- test your knowledge of the law and identify areas in need of revision.
It will provide extra value to would-be solicitors if SQE2 simulations (mock interviews and advocacy sessions) are conducted by mentors trained to give personalised student feedback.
That is especially true of mock advocacy stations: if your mock judge is a solicitor of England and Wales and at the same time a mentor familiar with the SQE methodology, she turns your mock station into an active and collaborative learning activity.
Likewise, in written SQE 2 assessments, it seems important to apply your knowledge to solving the problems set out in the instructions. That will help aspiring solicitors test their legal knowledge, check for gaps in it, and turn to focused revision.
None of the goals above can be accomplished if the superexam tasks are offered for self-assessment, if the tutor’s personalised feedback is substituted with suggested answers.
On frequent occasions, we indeed receive requests from aspiring solicitors who have been given a task in legal writing, to provide them with a sample letter instead. This seems ineffective in skills training, not much different from rereading law books – which though being absolutely vital in building up knowledge, does not help with developing legal skills required for SQE 2.
At the same time, there’s no denying the value of knowing what to expect in the superexam – and that’s where sample SQE questions and answers may indeed come in handy.
One such resource (https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/policy/solicitors-qualifying-examination/sqe2-assessment-specification/sqe2-sample-questions/) is helpfully provided as part of the SQE2 assessment specification by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) – in the open domain and free of charge.
Finally – getting back to SQE preparation сourses – a strong advantage would be the SQE 2 course provider’s experience in training law professionals for simulation-based examinations similar to the SQE two.
That would imply access to the most precious assets:
- the solicitors qualified in England and Wales who have expertise in simulation-based assessments,
- standardised clients trained to assess the client-facing skills of the lawyer, and
- effectively designed simulation scenarios.
One such simulation-based exam is Part 2 of the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) for foreign-qualified lawyers – called the Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE).
Its assessments make use of the same methodology and include oral and written tasks quite similar to those contained in the Superexam.
By developing OSCE preparation courses, your SQE 2 training provider may have accumulated the tools and resources that you will benefit from on your journey to the SQE 2.
If you are set on making that journey, you may want to keep an eye on 1 September 2021 – the date when the superexam will be introduced. Passing SQE1 first held in November 2021 will open up the possibility to register for SQE2 exam.
The first SQE two sitting is scheduled for April 2022, with bookings open from around December 2021 till February 2022.
Geographically, centres for sitting written SQE2 assessments will be available in England and Wales, as well as in some international locations.
According to the SRA, the oral component of SQE two however will likely be assessed in a more limited number of venues. That means, the earlier you register an SQE account and start booking, the wider choice of SQE test centres you will have.
With that in mind, think smart, choose wise, and plan ahead! It’s a long journey, and the only way to make it is by taking one small step at a time – slowly but surely.