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The Solicitors Qualifying Exam: everything we know so far

updated on 07 April 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has so far not led to any delay in 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 possible cost for candidates, to the response of law firms, universities, law schools and junior lawyers.

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

The new assessment is divided into two stages, with stage one covering legal knowledge and stage two 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.

Over the last few 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 should not be affected unless they choose to be. There will be a long transition period of several years from 2021 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 SRA will continue to recognise the LPC until as late as 2032, candidates won’t necessarily have that long to qualify while avoiding the SQE. 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.

The message is, if you start a law degree in September 2020 or 2021, you might well have to take the SQE, but anyone currently in the middle of a LLB, GDL or LPC in 2019 will not be affected.

The possibility of a delay to SQE is another important factor to bear in mind. Stage two of SQE is being piloted this December, but many law firms and law schools are not currently ready for SQE to be introduced in September 2021. If there is a delay, LawCareers.Net will have the information as soon as it is announced.

In the event of a delay, students commencing a law degree in September 2020 and 2021 will be able to take the LPC instead of the SQE.  

Will the coronavirus pandemic delay the introduction of SQE?

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."

What is required to become a solicitor under the SQE system?

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 (this is the same as the old system);
  • pass SQE stages one and two; and
  • have two years’ qualifying legal experience (QLE). You may also see this called “qualifying work experience” (QWE).

What is the timeline for qualifying under the Solicitors Qualifying Exam?

After graduating from a law or non-law degree, candidates will take stage one of the SQE (SQE1). Remember that the SQE is a series of exams, not a course, so the SRA expects most candidates to do a separate SQE1-preparation course before taking the SQE1 exams. These courses are still in development (more on this below), while some universities are working to incorporate SQE1 preparation into a three-year law degree, which will enable law graduates to take the SQE1 assessments straight after finishing their degrees.

SQE1 must be completed before taking SQE stage two (SQE2), but this is the only restriction on timings. The two years’ work experience can be completed before, during or after the SQE, although the SRA believes most candidates will pass SQE1 before undertaking their main period of work experience.

This flexibility means that if a candidate works as a paralegal for three months over the summer before taking SQE1, that may count toward their two-year total and they may only need to gain another 21 months’ work experience to complete the QLE requirement.

It is uncertain how this will work in practice, given that law firms with established training programmes have indicated that they still want trainee solicitors to do the full two years with them, as is the case with the traditional training contract system. These firms believe that this is the best way to train up solicitors for the needs and ways of working of a particular firm and its clients.

This could mean, for example, that if you gain six months’ experience at your university’s law centre during your law degree and then successfully apply to a firm for a traineeship, your firm might not shorten your remaining QLE in recognition of your previous experience. Instead the firm may still require you to complete a full-two year traineeship before taking on the responsibilities of a newly-qualified solicitor.

On the other hand, once someone has passed SQE1 and SQE2 and gained two years’ qualifying work experience, they can apply to the SRA to be granted qualification as a solicitor whether or not they have completed training to their current firm’s satisfaction. However, this still does not oblige the firm to give the newly qualified solicitor a role as an associate. It remains to be seen how the flexibility provided by the SQE will work alongside firms’ training preferences.

As soon as a candidate passes SQE1, the clock starts ticking. After passing SQE1, candidates will have six years in which to complete the two years’ QLE and pass SQE2. Candidates will be able to retake the SQE twice (a maximum of three attempts) during that six-year period.

Once you have passed SQE1, gained your two years’ QLE and passed SQE2, you will be a qualified solicitor.

What is in the Solicitors Qualifying Exam?

The SQE is aligned with the SRA’s Statement of Legal Knowledge, which sets out the knowledge that all solicitors must demonstrate at the point of qualifying. It is also designed to ensure qualifying solicitors meet the SRA’s Statement of Legal Competence, which sets out the standards of ethics and technical legal skills that solicitors must work to.

Over stages one and two, the SQE will cover:

  • ethics, professional conduct and regulation, including money laundering and solicitors accounts;
  • wills and administration of estates;
  • taxation;
  • law of organisations;
  • property;
  • torts;
  • criminal law and evidence;
  • criminal litigation;
  • contract law;
  • trusts and equitable wrongs;
  • constitutional law and EU law (including human rights);
  • legal system of England and Wales; and
  • civil litigation.

What does SQE stage one involve?

SQE1 shares many similarities with a law degree or GDL. It covers the seven foundations of legal knowledge (possibly six – EU law is not yet confirmed), but with a new focus on testing how candidates would apply their knowledge in real-life situations as practising solicitors. These assessments are called “functioning legal knowledge”.

SQE1 will include:

  • legal research and writing (the only practical element of stage one);
  • principles of professional conduct, public and administrative law, and the legal systems of England and Wales;
  • dispute resolution in contract or tort;
  • property law;
  • commercial and corporate law;
  • wills and the administration of estates and trusts; and
  • criminal law.

The proposed format for SQE1 is to split assessments into two exams of 180 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) each, testing how candidates would apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills in real scenarios.

What does SQE stage two involve?

SQE2 covers the practical skills needed to be a solicitor, which makes it comparable to the LPC. It 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.

SQE2 assessments will consist of practical exercises such as mock interviews with actors playing the roles of clients. Under the current proposals, practical skills will be assessed in two areas of law chosen by the candidate. These choices are:

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

Where and when will SQE assessments take place?

Kaplan is partnering with Pearson to use the latter’s network of test centres across England and Wales – you may already have been to one of the centres for a driving theory test.

There will be at least two opportunities a year to take the SQE – exams are likely to take place in June and December.

How much will the Solicitors Qualifying Exam cost?

The true cost of the SQE is unknown, as the SRA has only made tentative predictions about the fees to take the SQE assessment itself, not what universities and law schools might charge for SQE-preparation courses, law degrees incorporating SQE1 preparation or modified GDLs.

According to the SRA, fees to take SQE could range from £3,000 - £4,500. This would be broken down into:

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

Unhelpfully, these figures do not include the SQE-preparation courses that many candidates will take before attempting the exams. The SRA remains vague on this subject, saying only that the SQE should cost less than the LPC. This conspicuously fails to mention the GDL, which might be roughly equivalent to what a SQE-prep course might cost. Ultimately, it will be commercially-driven universities and law schools that decide the fees for these courses.

Candidates and junior lawyers are right to be concerned at the uncertainty over costs. Amy Clowrey, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division (JLD), says: “Despite the further delay to the implementation of the SQE, the JLD is encouraged that the SRA are taking on board the concerns raised by key stakeholders. The JLD is also pleased to see that initial cost information has now been released. That said, we do have concerns about the potential overall cost of the SQE.

“The current figures released by the SRA do not account for any preparatory courses and £4,500 for an examination is extortionate, particularly when, at present, funding options aren’t available for examinations alone. In the majority of cases aspiring solicitors pay for their own LPC, which includes the examination, often through a bank loan.

“If education providers opt to only provide the SQE exam then it would mean students travelling further afield to undertake both the course and the exam, resulting in even higher costs. This would adversely affect social mobility, something which the profession is trying hard to combat. 

“The SRA has recently commented that because the Professional Skills Course will no longer be necessary, this cost can effectively be offset against the cost of the SQE to result in a saving. However, as the SRA has highlighted, the cost of the PSC is currently a cost that must be borne by the employer during a trainee's training contract. In the majority of cases aspiring solicitors pay for their own LPC, often through a bank loan. It is therefore incorrect and somewhat disingenuous to suggest that the saving to employers should be offset against the cost of the SQE, which is not necessarily going to be a cost borne by the employers.”

LawCareers.Net will have all the information about SQE course fees as soon as it is available.

What is known about SQE-preparation courses?

It is important to remember that there is no rule specifying that candidates must complete a SQE-preparation course.

Candidates will need to decide whether they think the education and training they have received is enough to pass the SQE assessments. Law students will expect universities to gear their law degree programmes toward SQE and this is exactly what some universities are working on.

Non-law graduates will need to do a SQE1-preparation course that will probably resemble the GDL, while both groups will need to gain some legal work experience to pass SQE2. BPP has announced the first of these new SQE-friendly conversion courses - the Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) is the first law conversion course designed to prepare non-law graduates to pass the SQE1 assessments. It will be available to students from September 2020 and will take eight months to complete full time. Course fees for the PGDL will be announced in October.

Clearly, the PGDL has a very similar name to its predecessor, the GDL, and covers the same seven foundations of legal knowledge taught in a traditional law degree. In addition, teaching will cover the key practical skills and commercial concepts needed by trainees at City law firms. There will also be the option to incorporate the PGDL into a master’s.

Students who complete the PGDL will be eligible to progress onto the LPC or a preparation course for SQ2 – but details of these upcoming courses have not yet been released.

Elsewhere, City firms are also making plans that could include requiring trainees to do extra “City-specific” training on top of the SQE itself. Special electives could form part of a SQE-preparation course preferred by certain City firms. Whether firms will sponsor their future trainees’ fees for such courses – as they currently do for the LPC – remains to be seen.

All SQE assessments for both stages are being overseen by Kaplan, which as a result is not allowed to provide SQE-preparation courses as well as run the exams. Meanwhile, all the other universities and law schools currently providing law courses will be working on how to accommodate their teaching around the SQE. 

Ben Hughes, vice principal at Pearson Business School, says: “Many colleagues I speak to are already planning for the brave new world post 2021 when the new regime is set to be implemented. At Pearson College London I'd like to think we're one step ahead – with our MLaw in Professional Legal Practice seamlessly fusing theory with practice throughout – satisfying the LPC-based framework of today while benchmarked against the regime of tomorrow. But we are far from complacent and know that we must keep on running in a fast-changing world if we are not to get left behind.”

What are the rules on qualifying legal experience (QLE)?

The current system requires candidates to complete two years of legal work experience before they can qualify as solicitors and this will remain when SQE comes into effect, but it won’t have to be with the same employer. QLE 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 reached within the maximum of four separate periods of QLE.

The organisation also needs to be recognised as complying with SRA rules. 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.

Unlike SQE1 and SQE2, QLE is not assessed. But given that SQE2 tests practical skills, QLE should involve candidates putting the skills they will need to pass SQE2 into practice, which means client contact and seeing how ethics are applied to real situations.

Another difference between QLE and the training contract model it is replacing is that there will no longer be a requirement for trainee solicitors to work in a specific number of different areas of law.

It is very likely, though, that the two-year solicitor traineeships that are currently so sought-after among candidates will continue. Firms are not obliged to shorten the trainee placement they offer to a candidate who has already gained some experience, and firms place high value in their training programmes, which prepare solicitors for life within a specific specialism, working environment and client base.

However, some firms may instead prefer longer training contracts that include time for part-time study so that trainees can prepare for SQE1 and 2, and work at the firm at the same time. ‘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.”

Questions to answer

Aspiring solicitors still need to know what SQE-preparation courses will be available and how much the overall cost of qualifying under the new system will be. LawCareers.Net is covering the SQE closely – check our Solicitors Qualifying Exam hub and News section for updates over the coming months.

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