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Demystifying SQE: qualification as a solicitor and the changing regulatory regime

Demystifying SQE: qualification as a solicitor and the changing regulatory regime

Christianah B

06/03/2020

In 2021 the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority (SRA) is anticipating introducing a new route to qualification, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The SQE will slowly be introduced and run in parallel with the current Legal Practice Course (LPC) while it is phased out over several years. If like me you've been debating your options, this insightful talk by James Catchpole offers some food for thought! 

What is the SQE?

The SQE is a single national licensing examination for admission as a qualified solicitor in England and Wales. There will no longer be specific routes to admission as a solicitor. The best way to explain the SQE is to split it into the following four components:

  • the undergraduate degree or equivalent;
  • SQE1 and SQE2;
  • satisfactory character and suitability; and
  • a qualifying period of work experience.

The LPC has been around since 1993 but the SQE is designed to aid students into the qualification pool quicker than the LPC ever could.

As expected, there’s uncertainty among law students surrounding the SQE, with many wondering if it’s enough, whilst others fear being used as guinea pigs. Catchpole diverts the attention from the SQE by reminding us that the primary focus should be deciding whether you want to be a lawyer or not and which areas of law interest you if the answer to the first question is yes. He reassured the room that this answer will evolve depending on module selection. Think about who you want your clients to be and where you want to work, whether you are considering staying in the heart of London or inside the M25. He assured the audience that it doesn’t matter where you qualify, as long as you do. For those unsure which area of the law interests them, Catchpole advises going to the magistrate’s court on a Monday morning when it is likely to have had interesting things happen over the weekend. He suggests visiting the family court to see what happens when the resolution doesn’t get sorted. Whilst of interest, the UKSC or the Central Criminal Court typically have high-profile cases rather than day-to-day work.

What do employers want from you?

  • Resilience – it's normal to have someone criticise the quality of your work but what will showcase your resilience is how you turn this around and bounce back. Learn from minor errors and ensure that you get the job done. It's about determination and having the drive to carry on no matter what. Bouncing back from such a situation will also make you more adaptable and innovative – an attractive character trait for a successful lawyer.
  • People skills – when applying for vacation schemes or training contracts, don’t state that you’re a team player, instead provide details of an activity which infers that you’re a team player. Other important skills include being self-aware, having strong interpersonal skills and knowing how to deliver a project.
  • Street smart – these days it’s not enough to be book smart, employers expect applicants to have a commercial and international instinct, as well as common sense. That being said, having good numeracy and literacy skills, being able to think laterally, identify key issues, argue and defend effectively whilst being able to see the big picture, are equally important.
  • Rigour – being conscientious and having meticulous attention to detail is an important skill that will get you far. Not only will these qualities aid you to become more organised and task-orientated but will also enable you to carpe diem.

Comparing the two routes

The current route of the LPC requires a qualifying law degree or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The LPC is intended to get you ready for day one of your two-year training contract. The training contact entails professional skills, including rights of audience. Good character and suitability are required to thrive on the course, with the end goal of qualification. Similarly, good character and suitability are required for the SQE but it doesn’t necessarily require a law degree or a qualifying one, it merely requires a level 6 degree equivalent. Such a roomy route to qualification enables, for example, a photography student to enrol onto the SQE and qualify as a solicitor. There are two stages of the SQE (SQE1 and SQE2) which involves qualifying work experience for two years, with up to a maximum of four employers. The LPC prepares the student for work-based learning, providing a solid foundation for legal practice, whilst SQE1 assesses your functioning legal knowledge (not dissimilar to the topic headings of Stage 1 of the LPC) and SQE2 assesses your legal skills (eg, writing, drafting and advocacy). A huge difference between the two is the structure – the LPC is very structured and rigid whereas the SQE can be done whenever and is very flexible, suiting the needs of mature or working students. It’s only a matter of time before the SQE is here, but in the meantime, the LPC remains a valid qualification route until 2031 and LPC providers are valid until 2024.

Differences in delivery

The LPC is typically one year long and is taught in a classroom facilitated learning environment. The professional course emphasis is on legal skills and can often be combined with a master’s programme (LLM). In comparison, a pure SQE1-only course (remember that the SQE itself is not a course, but simply a series of exams) is looking like it may be a 10-to-12-week course focused on substantive and procedural law. SQE2 is work-based learning focused, most likely supported by refresher and preparatory courses. The SQE tests a fuse of the undergraduate LLB and the LPC.

Which route do I have to take?

As of now, the LPC is available to all until the SRA has received the approval of the SQE from the Legal Services Board and fully confirms assessment specification and methodologies. Catchpole advised that the SQE will take some embedding and getting used to, implying there’s no need to rush into it just yet (especially knowing that there will be inevitable changes as the route beds down), nor should aspiring lawyers presume that employers expect or prefer this route. Additionally, employers are already saying that they are expecting more than just the SQE, looking for students to do possibly more. And in the meantime, employers are also happy to stick to the tried and tested LPC until the SQE is the norm. As it stands, employers will most likely look at the SQE in 2022/2023 and probably for the GDL students initially (giving the LLB students breathing space)! It must also be remembered that the SQE isn’t intended for just LLB students, rather for oversees lawyers and paralegals. A major critique of the SQE is that, unlike the LPC, it is still not clear how transferrable or accepted in other public law jurisdictions the SQE is or will be. 

Final advice

  • Excel in your degree – push yourself to work hard and you’ll do amazing.
  • Enjoy your degree – whether you want to go on to qualify is a different matter entirely, just enjoy the moment.
  • For those who do want to qualify, when picking your law school, ensure you find the right environment for you where you’ll be most comfortable. Do not be swayed by vigorous marketing by some institutions.
  • When applying for vacation schemes and training contracts, remember most employers that reject you for one won’t allow you to apply for the other.
  • Select and target potential employers; look at the firm’s requirements and ask yourself if you genuinely meet them. Don’t waste your time and energy on an application if you fail to meet the requirements. Maximise your opportunities and be strategic.

And finally,

Catchpole offered one last nugget of wisdom: “You do not have to be the first cohort of the SQE, look at your circumstances to see if it’s a route that suits you. Don’t jump into the SQE until it’s more established. Don’t assume employers are expecting this route or are aware, many are not fully conversant with it yet.”

To find out more about the SQE, LawCareers.Net's (LCN's) Josh explains it here. LCN has also released two new podcast episodes hosted by Bethany about the SQE