There is a wide range of reasons for differential performance in professional legal assessments, with most beyond the direct control of candidates themselves, a new study shows.

As part of research commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) experts from the University of Exeter’s Schools of Law and Business have reviewed over 250 UK and international academic, government and professional reports and articles as well as consulting with 25 experts, including academics, regulators and members of the legal profession.

They have found  exam performance can be influenced by:

  • Positive or negative experiences at school, college or university
  • The availability of support in education and work for different minority groups
  • Perceived barriers and/or opportunities to entry and progression in a given profession, based on characteristics such as social class and ethnicity
  • Life circumstances, such as families’ socio-economic status

The study shows existing research was limited in some areas, including thedifferential performance in legal professional assessments and the experiences of Black, Asian and minority ethnic candidates of legal professional assessments in England and Wales.

The SRA’s annual education and training monitoring reports show a widely-acknowledged and persistent difference in legal qualification outcomes by ethnicity in the UK. Such differential outcomes are also seen in school, further and higher education, as well as in other professional assessments and other countries.

Paul Philip, Chief Executive of the SRA said: ‘The profession should reflect the diverse society it serves, but there is a longstanding picture of different outcomes for candidates from different ethnicities in legal qualifications. This research is the first step in better understanding what reasons lie behind that.

“What is clear, even at this stage, is that the factors that underlie this issue are complex and go far beyond issues within the direct control of the individuals themselves. Getting a greater understanding of the specific situation in the legal sector is an important next steps, in helping the entire sector consider what we may be able to do to address this area.”

Dr Greta Bosch, an Associate Professor at the University of Exeter’s School of Law, said: “This is the first systematic literature review to provide extensive cross-disciplinary analysis of differential outcomes in legal professional assessments. Its findings will allow us to identify a set of potential relationships between ethnicity and performance in legal professional assessments that we will go on to test in the next stage of our research. Our research will highlight the lived experiences of individuals alongside focusing on the views and experiences of senior legal educationalists involved with helping candidates prepare for legal qualifications, and senior individuals in law firms responsible for increasing diversity in their firms.”

The systematic literature review has helped inform the second and final phase of the University of Exeter’s research. In addition to qualitative research examining lived experiences, the team will test specific predictions about causes of differential outcomes in assessments by examining survey-based data that they have gathered from current students hoping to qualify as solicitors.

The research is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, and the final report be published in spring 2024.