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The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE): everything we know so far

updated on 02 March 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has delayed plans to change legal education and training in 2021 with the introduction of the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). Here is everything we know about the new exams, from the syllabus, to the format of the exams themselves, to the cost for candidates, to what law firms, universities and law schools are doing.

The SQE is a new system of exams that all solicitors must pass at the point of qualifying. It will replace the LPC in September 2021, but candidates already doing the LPC, a law conversion course or a law degree do not have to be affected (see more on the transition period below).

The SQE is divided into two stages, with SQE stage one (SQE1) covering legal knowledge; and stage two (SQE2) testing practical skills. The SQE is being introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and run by Kaplan.

Why is the Solicitors Qualifying Exam replacing the current system?

The change reflects that the traditional route to become a solicitor (completing a law degree or GDL, then the LPC, then a two-year training contract) is no longer the only way to qualify. The solicitor apprenticeship enables school leavers to qualify in six years by combining study with on-the-job training, while LPC students and graduates working as paralegals can qualify as solicitors through the equivalent means route.

The SQE will be the final, centralised assessment at the end of all these different pathways to ensure that all qualifying solicitors are tested consistently, regardless of which route they have taken.

In recent years, the SRA’s efforts to introduce more routes to qualifying have been aimed at increasing competition and innovation among universities, and widening access to careers in the profession. The SQE is intended to further increase flexibility by keeping the current system’s requirement to complete two years’ legal work experience but making it possible for volunteering roles and placements through university to count toward the total (as well as paralegal experience, much like equivalent means).

How will the Solicitors Qualifying Exam affect people already studying a law degree, GDL or LPC?

Anyone who starts a law degree, GDL or LPC before the SQE is introduced in 2021 can choose which route they take to qualify. There will be a long transition period from 2021, running until 2032, in which candidates who are already on one of the former courses will be able to qualify as solicitors in the ‘old’ way.

However, although the LPC will remain a valid alternative to the SQE, universities may stop providing the LPC for new students before the official transition period ends in 2032. The training committee of the City of London Law Society, which represents City firms, has said that firms will not want to run two separate qualification systems alongside each other and are therefore likely to insist that all future hires take the SQE from 2022.

Will the coronavirus pandemic delay the introduction of SQE?

The SQE has been granted final regulatory approval and it is now certain that the new system will be introduced in September 2021. The SRA says that “there is no indication that the implementation of the SQE will be affected” by social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The regulator added that “transitional arrangements are in place for 11 years, so any delays for current [law degree, GDL and LPC] students should not cause difficulties."

How do I qualify as solicitor under the SQE?

There are four requirements to qualify as a solicitor once SQE comes into effect in 2021. You must:

  • have a university degree or equivalent in any subject (law or non-law);
  • pass the SRA’s character and suitability assessment;
  • pass SQE stages one and two; and
  • have two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE).

Qualifying through the SQE: what do I need to do and when? 

The SQE is a graduate assessment so you will first need to complete a degree or equivalent (law or non-law).

The rules on when you complete the SQE and QWE requirements offer real flexibility. SQE1 must then be completed before SQE2, but QWE can be completed before, alongside of after SQE1 and SQE2.

Once SQE1 is completed, there is no time limit on when a candidate must complete SQE2 or qualify.  

Qualifying work experience (QWE)

QWE can be undertaken before, during and/or after completing SQE1 and SQE2, at up to four organisations such as law firms, law centres and university pro bono clinics.

A single placement does not have to be a minimum length of time – the two-year total just needs to be completed within the maximum of four separate periods of QWE.

Each placement must be signed off by a solicitor at the organisation, compliance officer for legal practice, or failing the first two, another solicitor outside the organisation with direct experience of the candidate’s work. The burden is on the confirming solicitor to decide whether the QWE meets the SRA's requirements. 

QWE is not assessed by the SRA, unlike SQE1 and 2. But as SQE2 tests practical skills, QWE should involve candidates learning the skills they will need to pass SQE2.

There will no longer be a requirement for trainee solicitors to work in a specific number of different areas of law, or experience both contentious and non-contentious practice areas.

Many firms will almost certainly continue to offer two-year training contracts. Firms are not obliged to shorten the period of training they offer if a candidate has already gained some experience, and many have training programmes that prepare solicitors for life within a specific specialism, working environment and client base.

Some employers may prefer longer training contracts that include part-time study so that trainees can prepare for SQE1 and 2 while working. ‘Big four’ accountancy firm Deloitte (which also provides legal services and train solicitors as an alternative business structure) has launched a three-year training contract that combines working as a trainee solicitor with studying to pass SQE1 and 2 at the University of Law one day a week. A spokesperson for the firm said that the approach will enable law graduates to start their training contracts “straight out of university, allowing them to start earning immediately while gaining qualifying legal work experience before sitting their SQE1 and 2.”

Head to this LCN Says to find out more about QWE.

What does the SQE cover?

The SQE is split into two stages – SQE1 and SQE2.

SQE stage one

The first stage, SQE1, covers “functioning legal knowledge”. It tests not just your knowledge of the law, but how you would apply it in real-life situations as a solicitor.

SQE1 is made up of two exams, each containing 180 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) which test how candidates would apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills in real scenarios across different practice areas. 

The first 180-question 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.

The SRA has released these SQE1 sample questions.  

SQE stage two

SQE2 covers “core legal skills” and involves both oral and written assessments. The emphasis on the everyday skills of lawyering, such as drafting contracts and interviewing clients, means that it tests many of the same skills as the LPC. However, a key difference between SQE2 and the LPC is that it tests to the level of a newly qualified solicitor, not a trainee solicitor. SQE2 tests whether your practical skills are at the standard required of a newly qualified solicitor.

SQE2 assesses the following five key skills:

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

These skills are assessed across five practice areas:

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

SQE2 is made up of 16 practical exercises (four oral skills assessments and 12 written skills assessments) covering the five areas of law above. It is a uniform assessment, meaning that all students sit the same exam. The 16 exercises take place over multiple days, but result in one overall mark. 

Where and when will SQE assessments take place?

Students will sit the SQE at their nearest Pearson test centre – (where driving theory tests in England and Wales take place). SQE2 oral assessments will only be in Cardiff, Manchester and London initially.

There will be multiple exam sittings throughout the year, providing flexibility to students, law schools and employers.

How much will the Solicitors Qualifying Exam cost?

The cost of taking the SQE will be between £3,000 - £4,500. This is broken down into:

  • SQE1 (written and computer-based assessments) - £1,100 - £1,650; and
  • SQE2 (written and oral assessments) - £1,900 - £2,850

These figures do not include the SQE-preparation courses that many candidates will take before attempting the exams. Law schools and universities have not yet revealed how much they will be charging for these courses, so look out for updates.

SQE-preparation courses

It is not compulsory to complete a preparation course to take the SQE. However, many candidates will choose to take a preparation course to give themselves the best chance of passing the SQE.

A range of postgraduate SQE1 and SQE2 preparation courses have been developed by providers such as BARBRIBPPThe University of Law (ULaw), QLTS School and the College of Legal Practice. These providers are offering full time and part-time study options.

BARBRI was the first provider to reveal fees for its new SQE courses. BARBRI’s 40-week SQE1 preparation course starts £2,999. It can also be completed over 10 or 20 weeks at the same cost. The first 40-week course will start in January 2021. Each course will be timed to lead directly into sitting the external SQE assessments, which can be sat at various times during the year.

BARBRI's SQE2 preparation course also starts from £2,999. It can be completed over eight or 16 weeks. The first 16-week SQE2 course will commence in December 2021, which is timed to prepare students to sit SQE2 assessments in April 2022.

ULaw’s new LLM Legal Practice – a course designed to prepare students for both stages of the SQE and replace the current LPC – will cost between £12,900 and £17,500, excluding the exam fees to take the SQE itself.

ULaw’s Peter Crisp, pro vice chancellor (external), said: “Our new programmes will enable students to pass the SQE with confidence as well as making them office-ready for practice in a law firm by empowering them with the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for a successful career in law.”

The College of Legal Practice, established by The College of Law Australasia, has also revealed the cost of its SQE preparation courses – the Developing Legal Professionals (DLP) programme. The DLP programme is made up of three core areas; Solicitors Legal Knowledge (SLK), Solicitors Legal Skills (SLS) and legal skills modules. The SLK course (SQE1 preparation) will cost £1,800, while the SLS Course (SQE2 preparation) will cost £2,300 – these are both available as a 12-week full-time course or a 20-week part-time course. Meanwhile, the legal skills modules range in price starting at £800, with a full LLM in Legal Practice available to aspiring solicitors from £6,900.

At undergraduate level, students can expect the option to undertake a modified law degree that combines SQE1 preparation with the traditional LLB.

These new courses provide a variety of options and a range of different fee levels and learning styles, but at the top end of the fees scale, early promises that the SQE would make becoming a solicitor more affordable than the LPC route have so far not been realised.

For more information, see LawCareers.Net's SQE-dedicated Hub and News section for updates over the coming months.

Josh Richman is the senior editorial manager of LawCareers.Net.