The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), as most people reading this will be aware, is a new standardised assessment that must be passed by all aspiring solicitors. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is introducing the SQE and hope that it will ensure that all solicitors, regardless of the route by which they entered the profession, meet certain minimum standards and that it will reduce the barriers facing budding lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds. However, I suspect I am not the only one still somewhat confused about what is changing and when. In this blog, I will focus on a subject on the minds of many, but especially of those of us graduating with non-law degrees in 2021: when is this change actually happening?
When will the new exams be introduced?
The exams will be split into two stages: the knowledge-based SQE1, and the more skills-based SQE2. The first SQE1 exams will take place in Autumn 2021, and the first SQE2 exams in Spring 2022. There will then be two opportunities to take each assessment every year.
Does this mean that every solicitor qualifying after September 2021 must take the SQE?
In a word, no. Anyone who has started a qualifying law degree, law conversion course or Legal Practice Course (LPC) before 1 September 2021 will still be able to qualify via the current route, involving the LPC and a training contract, if they wish. This is also true for anyone who has unconditionally accepted an offer to begin a qualifying law degree, law conversion course or LPC, and anyone who has accepted a training contract offer. That means that 2021 non-law graduates like myself are unlikely to take the SQE if we obtain places to begin conversion courses in Autumn 2021. It also means that there will be a prolonged period where some aspiring lawyers are qualifying via the SQE route and some via the LPC route.
When will training providers stop offering LPCs and start offering SQE preparation courses?
In practice, almost all candidates are likely to take some form of preparation course before attempting SQE1 and SQE2. Therefore, decisions about whether to take them or whether to qualify via the traditional LPC route while it’s still available, will be heavily influenced by what kinds of course are being offered when as well as by funding issues.
From September 2020 BPP University Law School will replace its Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) with a Postgraduate Diploma in Law. This is clearly part of its transition to prepare candidates for the SQE since it can be combined with SQE1 preparation to form an LLM in Law and Legal Practice. Crucially for students not being sponsored by a law firm, it will be possible to use a Postgraduate Master’s Loan to pay for this LLM. BPP’s decision to continue to offer a course similar in many respects to the GDL, but with the option to prepare for SQE1 at the end, is a significant one because Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, Norton Rose Fulbright and Slaughter and May have all chosen BPP to provide SQE preparation for future trainees.
However, other universities are taking somewhat different approaches. For example, The University of Law is continuing to advertise its GDL courses up until September 2021, suggesting that it may wait a little longer to transition fully to preparing candidates for the SQE. At the other end of the spectrum, the “big four” accountancy firm Deloitte has said that it will offer students the opportunity to complete the SQE1 and SQE2 over three years while working in their offices four days a week. This means that they will be able to complete their Qualifying Legal Experience and their exams simultaneously.
Deloitte’s decision is perhaps a sign of things to come. While the SQE’s introduction will bring few immediate changes, in the longer term it may fundamentally alter the possibilities open to aspiring lawyers.