updated on 10 August 2021
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) will be officially introduced this autumn as the new route to qualification for solicitors in England and Wales. It promises greater flexibility, will encourage wider diversity within the legal profession and has been deemed more affordable than the current route. Yet, with significant change comes uncertainty, and there have been misconceptions circulating within the industry around the new ‘super exam’. That’s why Victoria Cromwell, senior director of business development at BARBRI, has been debunking some of these common SQE myths.
Myth one – a law degree will adequately prepare you to pass the SQE
Some universities are choosing to maintain the academic law degree requirement, while others will incorporate SQE preparations into their curriculum as this new route comes into full effect. However, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has outlined that having a law degree is not a necessity for the SQE and non-law degree candidates do not need to feel at a disadvantage if they choose to pursue it.
The SQE combines the substantive law elements of a law degree/Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) with the procedural elements of the Legal Practice Course (LPC). So, a law degree on its own will not be sufficient to adequately prepare candidates for the SQE.
There will be course providers, like BARBRI, that will cover the required Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) element usually covered within a law degree or GDL as part of SQE1 preparations. However, we do recommend that those who do not have a law degree consider undertaking their preparation over a longer period. For example, we offer a part-time 40-week prep course which is recommended for non-law graduates with 10 to 12 hours of study per week. Regardless of your background, it comes down to having adequate study time suited to individual circumstances as this will be what allows candidates to feel prepared and confident enough to succeed.
Myth two – you need a degree to qualify
While candidates will still need to have achieved a higher education qualification, the SQE is open to candidates who have an equivalent to a degree. This could include an accredited qualification at Level 6 or above of the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications; a regulated qualification at Level 6 or above such as a CILEX level 6 qualification; an apprenticeship at Level 6 or above, provided it is approved by the government departments of England, Wales or Northern Ireland; and a qualification or apprenticeship at Level 9 or above of the Scottish Credit and Qualification Framework.
For overseas lawyers looking to achieve dual-qualification status, they will need to hold a qualification shown to be equivalent to either a UK degree or equivalent qualification through a UK NARIC Statement of Comparability; or an accredited qualification at Level 6 or above of the European Qualifications Framework.
In some cases, a work experience equivalent may also be considered if it demonstrates a sufficient standard of education and learning. The SRA has provided guidance on all of the above.
Myth three – you need to complete qualifying work experience before taking the SQE
Candidates can undertake qualifying work experience (QWE) before, during and after taking the SQE – it all comes down to preference and confirmation by a solicitor or compliance officer for legal practice (COLP). Some candidates, for example, paralegals or legal executives, may already have significant experience under their belt due to existing work placements. Experience can be ‘banked’ to evidence at a later date but it is always a good idea to check with your employer whether they can or will confirm QWE.
Regardless of how QWE is conducted, we recommend that candidates start thinking about QWE options early and have a plan. Your university and/or SQE course provider should have careers services to assist you.
It’s also worth noting that qualified lawyers (including those qualified outside England and Wales, CILEX practitioners and Chartered Legal Executives) are not required to complete QWE.
Myth four – law firms favour the LPC over the SQE
While it’s certainly true that firms have an established hiring route in place for trainees under the outgoing model of the LPC, for all students who are starting their degrees this September, the LPC route will no longer be an option. So eventually, firms will transition to the SQE model and it will become the standard across all firms. Currently, it looks likely that most firms will delay until 2023 to make the full change, but we are already seeing candidates keen to pursue the SQE and some firms have already embraced this new route to qualification.
There has also been some talk about LPC 'elective' modules not being covered by the SQE curriculum and therefore it will not be enough for newly qualified lawyers for practice. However, many SQE providers will be covering these electives and/or firms will offer these in some cases too – either as part of their induction process or by integrating practice-specific training into their SQE preparation.
Myth five – the SQE exams are easy
There is a misconception that the SQE will be easy to pass due to its message around accessibility and the fact that it is now open to non-law graduates without the need for a GDL. There have also been questions around the difficulty of SQE1, because of its multiple-choice questions model which is new to the UK legal profession. However, this style of testing is already common in the US Bar examinations which have a reputation of being difficult to pass.
By way of comparison, the SQE1 exam covers 16 practice areas and is a two-day exam of 360 questions. The equivalent part of the US Bar exam is 200 questions covering seven subjects over one day. The SQE1 exam also gives candidates only 1.4 minutes to answer each question, which will be challenging in itself.
The breadth of topics covered across what some in the industry are calling a ‘super exam’, means that all successful candidates will have proven their competence and understanding of a broad range of legal areas. It’s not going to be easy but with the right preparation, aspiring lawyers will be able to succeed.
Victoria Cromwell is the senior director of business development at BARBRI.