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What does SQE mean for students’ employability?

updated on 24 May 2021

The introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) in September 2021 raises questions about what students need to be doing to maximise their employability under the new, more flexible system. Is it enough to pass SQE1 and 2 or do candidates need something extra? What are the essential employability skills that employers want and have these changed following the pandemic, as well as SQE? LawCareers.Net spoke to The University of Law’s John Watkins about how students can make themselves employable alongside preparing for the SQE.

How will the SQE impact how solicitors are trained and developed?

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam’s (SQE) introduction of new options for how and when legal training is delivered presents an opportunity for individual employers and students to consider what they need, both in terms of starting out and continuing professional development. “The old Legal Practice Course (LPC) route took the approach of getting people as ready as possible to hit the ground running when they enter practice, with many candidates also doing vacation schemes alongside the LPC, which familiarised them with the working environment before they started,” says John Watkins, director of employability at The University of Law (ULaw). The result for law firms was that this enabled trainees to become productive and be involved in billable work from an early stage, but the SQE introduces different options alongside it that provide their own advantages.  

“For employers and students who want a similar approach to the old LPC, there are programmes such as the LLM Legal Practice (SQE1&2), which prepare students for the SQE but also develop a wider set of skills than is required for the SQE assessments, to make students more prepared for the working environment,” explains John. “But there are other effective approaches, too. Some employers are looking at the accountancy profession’s model, where trainees start with little to no knowledge and do all their studying alongside the job. That requires employers to put more time and effort into nurturing trainees themselves, but they can do so at a lower starting salary, while also making people development a rewarding aspect of the more senior lawyers’ roles, beyond pure frontline advice.”

With the previously compulsory LPC being replaced by a more flexible system, people development is an important challenge facing lawyers and trainees. “Trainees must learn the skill of ‘managing upwards’ – showing initiative and delivering the manager’s needs, but also communicating with their managers and proactively pursuing their development needs,” argues John. “This is even more the case if they spend time working remotely, which is likely to continue as a feature of many of our working lives even after the end of the pandemic. Managers must also manage downwards much more effectively – and need to be incentivised to do so because investing in people yields a return over time.”

What are some essential employability skills for the 2020s?

“Traditional skills such as communication and teamworking remain vital, but they have taken on a new emphasis during the pandemic, with most lawyers working remotely,” observes John. “This is why the ‘virtual leadership experience’ run by our employability team has become so popular with students. We put students in team situations over Zoom over the course of half a day, and the experience is good practice for both virtual assessment centres and the new hybrid working environment.” 

Meanwhile, citizenship and empathy are increasingly important skills for the modern workplace. “Eighteen months ago, citizenship would have been far less of a priority for some firms, but many benefited from the assistance of public money during the pandemic and realise the importance of giving back to the community – so fee earning is far from the only focus when firms are considering the kinds of people they want to make up their organisations,” observes John. “Equally, empathy is crucial – even if you are lucky enough to be spared some of the challenges that that life can present, some of your colleagues will encounter them. Sometimes if a colleague is struggling, it won’t be because they don’t know the law well enough, but because something else is going on.”

Above all, a sense of optimism and willingness to try are among the most vital employability traits. “A few months ago, we had some office furniture delivered to the university,” says John by way of example. “The piece was heavy and it had to go up some narrow stairs. The two people making the delivery each took a very different view. One said that they would never be able to get the item up the stairs and that the order would have to be cancelled, but his colleague persuaded him to try and find a way. The second colleague won out and they were able to move the furniture. It shows that a positive outlook is important to achieve success and in a competitive world, it will make you stand out from those who are less willing to find solutions.”  

How should students build and demonstrate their employability on the SQE route?

Preparing for the SQE assessments can be approached differently, with various types of course designed for students with different employability and support needs. “For students starting with a base of little or no experience in the profession, a course such as the LLM Legal Practice SQE1&2, with a master’s built in alongside SQE preparation, is a stronger qualification than a basic SQE preparation course designed to get you ready for the assessments as quickly as possible,” says John. “However, a cheaper SQE-only qualification will be just as competitive for a candidate who has built up their practical experience, for example, in a law firm or doing pro bono work.”

Choosing an SQE preparation course should take employability into account, as well as other key criteria such as your preferred learning style and budget, as John explains: “We are not saying that everyone should come to The University of Law or embark on a master’s qualification that covers more ground than a basic SQE course. Students have a lot of choice – there are options catering for every level of support need, including for candidates with more experience, who don’t need as much support and prefer to learn independently.”

ULaw’s core offer is at the other end of the spectrum, with learning and employability support key pillars of the institution’s reputation. “With the employability service, students have access to a deep well of professional and life experience from advisers who have been through setbacks in their careers themselves, from redundancies, to rejections, to personal issues,” says John. “Getting advice from people who have been there themselves can help in the challenging environment that students face now.”

SQE arrives at a good time to tackle ongoing issues in the solicitors’ profession, some of which have been made more pressing by the pandemic, with its flexibility enabling firms and students to develop and cultivate the skills to thrive in the modern legal sector.

To find out more about ULaw’s employability service, visit the ULaw website.