I’m beginning to understand the mechanics of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). In Autumn 2021 the Solicitors Regulation Authority will introduce a two-part assessment, including a multiple-choice element designed to test legal knowledge (SQE1) and a series of written and oral exams designed to test legal skills (SQE2). Eventually, all new solicitors will have to pass both stages and undertake two years of relevant work experience before they can qualify.
However, I’m still unsure about how much will actually change following the SQE’s introduction. Freshfields, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Norton Rose Fulbright, Linklaters and Slaughter and May have announced that their spring 2023 cohorts of trainees will be the first to qualify through the SQE route, and will take their SQE1 exams around November 2022. Since they will also take their SQE2 exams before beginning their training contracts this suggests that the period of learning between the two sets of exams will be shorter in length than, for example, a conventional Legal Practice Course (LPC). Other than that, however, this ‘consortium’ of City firms look set to change relatively little. The training programme they are developing will be a similar length to the current offering, will be completed before trainees begin working for the firms, and will be delivered in partnership with BPP University Law School, which already teaches many future City lawyers the LPC and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). The group will also continue to offer two-year training contracts, with seat rotation, by way of qualifying work experience.
Other firms are planning more radical changes. Deloitte has announced that participants on their Deloitte Legal graduate programme will begin working in their offices four days a week before they have passed either stage of the SQE. Over three years, they will then study at BPP University Law School for one day each week in order to pass SQE1 and SQE2. However, it seems that non-law graduates will need to complete the GDL before they can begin the programme.
In a similar vein, Kennedys Law LLP will offer a so-called ‘Graduate Solicitor Apprenticeship’. For 30 months, participants will work four days a week and spend one day a week studying at BPP University Law School in preparation for SQE1 and SQE2. Like Deloitte, though, they will still require non-law graduates to complete the GDL before beginning the programme. Interestingly, they will also (at least for now) continue to offer conventional training contracts to those who have completed the LPC.
In addition, there will be new and different options for those taking the SQE exams before they have secured a training contract. For example, BARBRI is offering a flexible 20-week full-time SQE1 prep course for non-law graduates, or a flexible 10-week full-time course for law graduates, and a flexible eight-week full-time courses for SQE2. This means that even a non-law graduate could complete both stages in just 28 weeks – a much shorter time than would be required to complete the GDL and LPC. However, even they seem to have recognised that the two preparation courses alone may not be enough to prepare people for their qualifying work experience. Together with The College of Legal Practice, they are also developing an SQE Practice Programme, which those who wish to can opt to take alongside their SQE1 and SQE2 preparation courses.
It seems, then, that the move to the SQE will provide more options for those hoping to qualify as lawyers. However, these will be available only to those who actively seek them out. For many, the change could be fairly limited.