A few months ago we sat down with Johanna and Caulyn to talk about the then upcoming SQE pilot. In this interview we find out a bit more about their experience on the pilot and what we can expect in the future.
Could you please remind us what the SQE pilot was assessing?
CB: The SQE Stage 1 pilot consists of Practical Legal Skills assessment (Legal Research and Writing) and Functioning Legal Knowledge assessments covering three domains comprising various subject areas.
JL: The SQE stage 1 pilot assessed “Functioning Legal Knowledge”, covering essentially everything in the LLB and LPC core modules as well as legal research and writing.
How did the assessment work?
CB: Each domain of the FLK was assessed via a multiple choice test (MCT) of 120 questions. All 360 questions were completed over a 2-day period. On each day, 180 questions were divided into 3 sections where we had 110 minutes to complete each section of 60 questions. PLS was assessed on a two-cycle basis on a separate day. Each cycle consists of a 60-minute legal research exercise and two 30-minute writing exercises. For every 110 minutes of assessment completed, we were provided a 30 or 45 minutes break before resuming the next section.
There were no permitted materials for Stage 1 pilot at all, since the questions did not require us to recall or cite specific case names or statutes except for authorities very commonly used in practice such as CPR Part 36.
JL: The assessment was over three days, the first and third days being full days of multiple choice exams, divided in to three 110 minute sets of 60 questions each. The second day was for legal research and writing.
The exams were done on computers, and we were not allowed to take anything into the exam rooms – not even a wristwatch. We were given a dry-erase booklet and pen for making notes, but the exam was entirely paper free. We were not allowed to bring in any statute books or any materials at all.
We had to all start the question sets at the same time and stay in the room until the 110min timer had run out, regardless of when you finished. This meant that a lot of candidates spent up to an hour either doodling on the dry-erase booklet or sleeping in the exam room, as in general everyone seemed to finish the questions well before the timer ran out.
Between the sets we had scheduled breaks of either 30 or 45min.
How did you find the exam?
CB: The FLK questions tested on knowledge from LLB and LPC. Since they took in the form of MCTs, they were not very difficult to complete because I did not have to justify my answers like how I would in long form questions. As a result, I had at least 30 minutes to spare for each section. Substantively, some questions had a straightforward answer whereas others were tricky to choose from 2 very close options.
Legal Research and Writing at Stage 1 pilot were significantly easier than the ones in the LPC. The assessments were timed but relevant materials were already provided and I was not required to research or draft full advice from scratch.
JL: I was not a huge fan of the exam format. Entirely closed book, assessing four years’ worth of learning in multiple choice only was daunting. Everything I had very recently studied on the LPC (I had just finished my core and skills modules prior to the Pilot) was very fresh in my memory and I answered the questions relatively confidently, but having to remember intricacies of my first year LLB modules was difficult. Granted, I had not actually attempted to revise anything from my undergraduate days for the Pilot – I would not have even known where to start! I think attempting the exam without any kind of a prep course would be rather difficult, as the subject matter of the exam is so broad. I wish the exam was not multiple choice only, as I tend to do better with written answers.
I also found the time limits to be incredibly long; for a closed book multiple choice exam, if you do not know the answer and cannot attempt to find it in the statute book, all you can really do is make a guess – and that does not take up a lot of time. The time could have easily been cut down to 75min or even to just an hour.
The research and writing tasks were challenging but interesting, and I found the time limits (either 30min or 60min) for them appropriate. We were given barely any instructions regarding them so the format was a bit confusing, but I found the actual research questions straightforward.
What were the biggest differences from the exams you have completed in law to date?
CB: There are no long form questions for the FLK. We had to select one answer from 5 options of each MCT.
In the LPC, Practical Legal Research and Writing were take-home assessments based on the same scenario to be completed within 2 days. Research had to be performed by every student. We were also required to write a full letter of advice from scratch.
In the SQE pilot, we were only required to analyze and extract applicable information from a few authorities (already provided for) which would be relevant to a given scenario. No manual research was performed on any research platform. The subject matter for Writing was separate from that of Legal Research. We were required to write a letter or email of advice containing a relevant piece of authorities to a fictional client.
JL: The exam being multiple choice only and totally closed book, and done on the computer! All of my undergraduate exams, with the exception of two where we were allowed to bring in 5 pages of handwritten notes, have been closed book, but on the LPC we are allowed to bring in our statute books. Two of my exams on the LPC have been multiple choice only and one of them was done online.
Overall, how did you find the experience and what are your impressions at this stage of the SQE?
CB: It was a great experience overall to now be able to compare the difference between the LPC and pilot stage of the SQE.
For FLK, I personally would prefer long form questions as the answers would actually reflect students’ depth of understanding and the extent of application skills on a subject matter. For MCTs, sometimes you may guess the answer based on the hints given in the questions and you could get lucky (although I am not sure if you could always get lucky while attempting to solve problems in practice).
I think Legal Research and Writing may not prepare students adequately for research and writing in practice where trainees would have to research and write first draft of full advice from scratch.
From quality assessment perspective, however, the SQE is designed to be monitor qualification process in a more uniform way than the LPC by different providers. Under the SQE, everyone is assessed based on the same set of questions.
The Stage 1 pilot scheme is not the final product. Candidates (including myself) were given an opportunity to provide feedback on the pilot scheme. I hope the comments would be helpful while converting the pilot scheme into the final product. Also, plans for Stage 2 of the pilot scheme are underway and I am curious how it would look like.
JL: The experience was definitely interesting, and I’m hoping to be able to take part in the Stage 2 Pilot which to my understanding will be taking place in December. Meeting some of my fellow candidates was a fun experience and it was all very different to my previous exams. I’m eager to find out my results sometime in the late summer, as I can’t really say how well it went until then!
I am interested to find out whether the SRA will take our feedback into consideration when developing the SQE further. My impressions at this stage are mixed – I am glad to have been a part of the Pilot and potentially helping to develop the way in which future solicitors qualify, but I am equally glad I am qualifying via the ‘old’ LPC route. I don’t think a multiple choice only exam is necessarily the best in assessing a candidate’s legal knowledge, and having to prepare to answer questions on essentially everything you have ever learned during your (legal) academic career without any access to materials in the exam is rather terrifying. I will be following what sort of prep courses current LPC providers will begin to offer with great interest when the SQE is introduced, and how it will change how the LLBs are structured.