In 2021 the route to qualifying as a solicitor will change with the introduction of the new SQE exam. Under the new system you’ll need 4 things to qualify:
- a degree (any subject) or equivalent;
- pass stages 1 and 2 of the SQE: SQE1 focuses on legal knowledge; SQE2 on practical legal skills (SQE1 must be completed before taking SQE2);
- complete 24 months of qualifying work experience (also called qualifying legal experience)
- pass the character/suitability assessment set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
The SRA expects that most individuals will take SQE1 after completing a degree and before the start of the period of legal work experience and SQE 2 at the end of the period of work experience.
How will the SQE affect me?
Students starting degree courses after September 2021 will need to take the SQE. The only exception (recently announced) will be those who defer their QLD start date until 2022 provided they have accepted and deferred their QLD place by 31 August 2021. Those who start a Qualifying Law Degree (QLD), Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or Legal Practice Course (LPC) before the SQE is introduced in September 2021 should not be affected as there will be a transition period during which individuals who have already started their legal education will be able to qualify via the current route. The current route to qualification for students with a QLD involves completion of the LPC followed by a training contract with a law firm; non-law students complete the GDL prior to the LPC and training contract. Students need to bear in mind that Law firms will not want to run two separate qualification systems alongside each other and are likely to move everyone to the new (SQE) system, possibly as early as 2022. Students who start a non-law degree in 2018, 2019 or later will follow the new (SQE) route to qualification as they won’t be able to start their legal education until 2021 at the earliest. This also applies to those who started a four-year non-law degree in 2017.
What is the SQE?
SQE1 assesses functioning legal knowledge including its application to the sort of situations encountered by trainee solicitors (it roughly covers the same content as the current QLD/GDL). SQE2 assesses practical legal skills. SQE assessment will be made available at Pearson national test centres (where learner drivers take their theory tests).
SQE1 assessment will involve two exams of 180 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) each, testing how candidates would apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills in real scenarios. The intention is that questions on professional ethics will be integral to the assessment. SQE1 covers:
- legal research and writing (the only practical element of SQE1);
- principles of professional conduct, public and administrative law, and the legal systems of England and Wales;
- dispute resolution in contract or tort;
- property law;
- commercial and corporate law;
- wills and the administration of estates and trusts; and
- criminal law.
SQE2 assessment addresses the core legal skills needed to be a solicitor and includes practical skills assessment (e.g. role play, simulation) with an emphasis on key skills like drafting and client interviewing. It covers the following skills:
- client interviewing;
- advocacy/persuasive oral communication;
- case and matter analysis including planning negotiations;
- legal research and written advice;
- legal drafting.
Practical skills will be assessed in 2 areas of law chosen by the candidate from the following:
- criminal practice;
- dispute resolution;
- wills and the administration of estates;
- business practice.
The SQE is a series of exams not a course and whilst there is no prescribed preparation course for SQE1 and 2 the SRA expects that candidates will need to prepare before taking the SQE. It is entirely up to the student how they choose to prepare and the type of preparation will vary according to candidates’ prior legal education. It is likely to be longer for those without a law degree and will probably resemble the current GDL. Given the cost of these exams (£3000-£4500 awaiting confirmation by SRA) and the fact that they are robust professional examinations students need to think carefully about the level of preparation they need, the style of teaching and learning and the relative merits of the different preparation courses available to them. Masters level programmes will offer electives, the chance to do a dissertation and develop additional knowledge, skills and behaviours that many law firms value. They will also provide access to a student loan.
Qualifying Work Experience (QWE/QLE)
QWE is any experience of working in legal services which will provide the opportunity to develop the competencies required for a newly qualified solicitor. There is a requirement that candidates complete two years of legal work experience however it no longer has to be with the same employer nor include work in different practice areas. It can be gained in up to 4 placements at different organisations and for different amounts of time (as long as the total amounts to 2 years) and may include volunteering at a Law clinic or working as a paralegal in a Law firm as well as the traditional training contract. It can be undertaken before, during and/or after completing SQE1 and SQE2 and must be supervised and signed off by a solicitor.
Despite the flexibility that the new qualification system is introducing law firms are not obliged to shorten the training placement even where a candidate has significant prior legal experience. Law firms have developed training programmes that meet their organisation’s needs, enable trainee solicitors to gain a solid grounding in the type of work required and which prepare them for life working within a specific specialism, environment and client base. Whilst they value prior legal experience many will choose to continue to offer training programmes that meet their specific needs over the traditional two year time frame.
How much will it cost?
The SRA has indicated that the cost of taking the SQE exams could range from £3000-£4500 broken down as follows:
- SQE1 – £1,100-£1,650
- SQ2 – £1,900-£2,850
These figures don’t include the costs of any SQE preparation courses and whilst they suggest that it should be cheaper than the current LPC in reality the cost of SQE preparation courses will be determined by course providers. Non-law students are likely to need a more in depth SQE preparation course similar to the current GDL.
For more information on what is currently known about the SQE you may wish to refer to the following sources:
- LawCareers.net: https://www.lawcareers.net/Solicitors/the-solicitors-qualifying-examination
- Chambers Student: https://www.chambersstudent.co.uk/law-schools/the-solicitors-qualifying-examination-sqe
- SRA SQE Update: https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/sqe-update/ (February 2020 update provides a briefing on the development of the SQE to date and developments planned before its introduction in 2021).
Valerie Matthews-Lane, Senior Careers Consultant for Warwick Law School (June 2020)