The new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) – updated October 2020

On 1 September 2021, the route to qualifying as a solicitor will change with the introduction of the new SQE exam.  The SQE will replace the GDL for non-law graduates (Graduate Diploma in Law) and LPC (Legal Practice Course) in September 2021.  However students already doing one of these courses or a law degree don’t have to be affected and can qualify via the existing route (see details about the transition arrangements below in ‘How will the SQE affect me?’).  

SQE – requirements – those qualifying via the new system will need to:

  • have 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 except for those that come within the ‘SQE transitional arrangements’.  The transitional arrangements state that anyone who completes, starts or accepts an offer for a qualifying law degree, GDL/CPE (graduate law conversion course), LPC or training contract before the 1 September 2021 has until 31 December 2032 to qualify as a solicitor under the existing route.  They must start their course by 31 December 2021 and it is dependent on courses (existing route) remaining available.

The current route to qualification for students with a QLD (Qualifying Law degree) or equivalent involves completion of the LPC followed by a training contract with a law firm.  Students who started their non-law degree in 2019 or later will follow the new (SQE) route to qualification.  Students who started a three-year non-law degree in 2018 and four-year non-law degree in 2017 will follow the new route to qualification unless they fall within the transitional arrangements described above.  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 system, possibly as early as 2022 for City Law Firms.  Where most law firms have moved over to the new SQE law schools are likely to stop teaching the LPC as it will no longer be profitable meaning that LPC teaching could end before the old route officially expires in 2032.

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 involves two exams of 180 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) each.  They test how candidates apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills in real scenarios across five different practice areas. 

The first SQE1 exam covers:

  • business law and practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • contract;
  • tort;
  • legal system of England and Wales; and
  • constitutional and administrative Law and EU law and legal Services.

The second SQE1 exam covers:

  • property practice;
  • wills and the administration of estates;
  • solicitors accounts;
  • land law;
  • trusts; and
  • criminal law and practice.

SQE2 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:

  • client interviewing;
  • advocacy/persuasive oral communication;
  • case and matter analysis including planning negotiations;
  • legal research and written advice;
  • legal drafting.

SQE2 contains 16 practical exercises (4 oral skills assessments and 12 written skills assessments) assessed across the following 5 practice areas:

  • criminal practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • property;
  • wills and the administration of estates;
  • business practice.

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
  • SQE2 – £1,900-£2,850

The SQE is a series of exams not a course and these figures exclude the cost of any SQE preparation course. Whilst there is no prescribed preparation course for SQE1/2 the SRA expects that candidates will need to prepare.  The SRA suggest that SQE preparation courses should be cheaper than the current LPC; however the cost of SQE preparation courses is determined by course providers not the SRA. It is 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. 

The SQE is a robust professional examination and 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. The organisation must be recognised as complying with SRA rules and the experience supervised and signed off by a solicitor.  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.  Experience gained before, during and/or after completing SQE1 and SQE2 can count. 

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.

For more information on the SQE refer to the following sources:

Valerie Matthews-Lane, Senior Careers Consultant for Warwick Law School (13 October 2020)

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