updated on 05 October 2021
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) was introduced in September 2021. 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.
By now, you probably know that the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a new system of exams that all solicitors must pass at the point of qualifying. It came into place in September 2021 and will eventually replace the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Candidates already doing the LPC, a law conversion course or a law degree will not be affected (see more on the transition period below).
The SQE is divided into two stages, with SQE1 covering functioning legal knowledge; and SQE2 focusing on practical legal skills and knowledge. The SQE was introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and is being provided by Kaplan.
Recent updates in the news
The change reflects that the traditional route to become a solicitor (completing a law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) (law conversion), 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 is 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).
According to the SRA, anyone who has “completed, started, accepted an offer of a place or paid a non-refundable deposit” on/for the GDL, LPC or training contract before 1 September 2021 can choose which route they take to qualify (ie, LPC or SQE).
The SRA’s transitional arrangements also apply to candidates who have completed, started, accepted an offer of a place or paid a non-refundable deposit on/for a qualifying law degree (QLD) or exempting law degree (ELD) by 21 September 2021 (inclusive).
Candidates who have accepted a place on a QLD, ELD or GDL must have started the course on or before 31 December 2021 – this transitional arrangement applies in most cases.
There will be a long transition period from 2021, running until 2032, in which candidates who are already on one of the former courses can 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.
There are four requirements to qualify as a solicitor via the SQE. You must:
The SQE is a graduate assessment so you will first need to complete a degree (law or non-law) or equivalent.
The rules on when you complete the SQE and QWE requirements offer real flexibility but many firms are likely to have preferences regarding when you complete your QWE. SQE1 must be completed before SQE2, but QWE can be completed before, alongside or after SQE1 and SQE2.
Once SQE1 is completed, there is no time limit on when a candidate must complete SQE2 or qualify. Candidates must have completed their two years QWE before they apply for admission to the roll of solicitors.
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. It is up to 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 ULaw 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.”
Do you have more questions about QWE? This LCN Says addresses a number of FAQs that we have recently encountered.
The SQE is split into two stages – SQE1 and SQE2.
The first stage, SQE1, covers “functioning legal knowledge” (FLK). 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:
The second SQE1 exam covers:
The SRA has released these SQE1 sample questions.
SQE2 covers “practical 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 – it tests whether your practical skills are at the standard required of a newly qualified solicitor. A candidate’s ethics and professional conduct will also be tested throughout this stage.
SQE2 assesses the following six key skills:
These skills are assessed across five practice areas:
SQE2 is made up of 16 practical exercises (four oral skills assessments and 12 written skills assessments) covering the six 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. SQE2 oral will take place over two half days and SQE written will take place over three half days.
Students will sit SQE1 and 2 written assessments at their nearest Pearson test centre in the UK and internationally (where driving theory tests in England and Wales take place). SQE2 oral assessments will only be in Cardiff, Manchester and London initially but more locations will be available to choose from in future.
There will be multiple exam sittings throughout the year, providing flexibility to students, law schools and employers. The first SQE1 exams will take place this year – SQE1 FLK1 is scheduled for 8 November 2021 and SQE1 FLK2 for 11 November 2021. FLK1 and FKL2 must be taken in the same assessment window, unless a candidate has an exemption. The SRA is encouraging aspiring lawyers to register for the exams early as places will be offered on a first come, first served basis.
SQE1 FLK1 and FLK2 assessments will also take place in July 2022 – the SRA is yet to release specific dates and booking details for this round.
Meanwhile, the first SQE2 written assessment will take place between 11 to 13 April 2022; and the first and second sittings for the SQE2 oral assessment have been scheduled to take place between 19 to 20 April 2022 and 21 to 22 April 2022 – candidates can choose the date that suits them at the time of booking, depending on availability.
The second assessment window for SQE2 has also been confirmed, with both the written and oral assessment scheduled for autumn 2022.
Please note, in order to book an assessment, you must first register as an SQE candidate.
The cost of taking the SQE is £3,980. This is broken down into:
These figures do not include the SQE-preparation courses that many candidates will take before attempting the exams. LCN has created a guide to SQE preparation courses, which includes the costs and course content on offer at different law schools and universities.
While there are plenty to choose from, the cost of some of the SQE prep courses have been criticised by the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD). The JLD expressed concern that the overall costs of completing the new ‘super exam’ is likely to rival, if not exceed, the costs of the LPC. For example, at the top end courses could cost between £13,000 to £16,500 (excluding the exam fees) – similar to the cost of the LPC. That said, at the lower end some providers are offering less expensive alternatives, which could see the total cost of the SQE (including exam fees) come to around £10,000 – a significantly lower figure than the LPC. The price of these courses will reflect the material candidates will have access to, as well as contact time with tutors, for example.
Candidates have two payment options. The first involves funding the SQE themselves – SQE candidates can pay for their assessments using a debit or credit card. Alternatively, some training providers or employers might purchase vouchers, which candidates are eligible to redeem when booking an assessment. The various optional SQE preparation courses being developed by different law schools will also include the option to combine with a master’s, making them eligible for the postgraduate loan in the same way as the GDL and LPC.
It is not compulsory to complete a preparation course to take the SQE. However, many candidates will choose to take one 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 BARBRI, BPP, ULaw, QLTS School, Nottingham Law 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. Its 40-week SQE1 preparation course starts at £2,999. It can also be completed over 10 or 20 weeks at the same cost. The first 40-week course will start in September 2021, the first 20-week course started in June 2021 and the 10-week course in August 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 will be completed over 12 weeks. The first 12-week SQE2 course is timed to prepare students to sit SQE2 assessments in April 2022 – course start dates have not yet been confirmed.
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 £13,000 and £16,500, excluding the exam fees to take the SQE itself. U Law has several other SQE prep courses on offer.
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, which includes a module called Solicitors Legal Knowledge (SLK) for SQE1 and Solicitors Legal Skills (SLS) for SQE2. The SLK course (SQE1 preparation) will cost £1,800 and is available as a 13-week full-time course or 20-week part-time course, while the SLS Course (SQE2 preparation) will cost £2,300 and is available as a 10-week full-time course and 20-week part-time course. Applications for both preparation courses opened in April 2021, with the first full-time SLK course starting in August 2021 and the first SLS course starting in January 2022.
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.
The above is just a short overview of the courses on offer – LCN’s guide to SQE preparation courses goes into more detail and has information about courses on offer at other legal education providers, including QLTS, Law Training Centre and Nottingham Law School. Additional SQE prep courses could also be announced in 2021 and 2022.
Olivia Partridge (she/her) is the content producer of LawCareers.Net.