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Solicitors Qualifying Exam – your questions answered

updated on 06 October 2020

From September 2021, the route to legal qualification in England and Wales is changing with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). There are still questions surrounding the ‘super exam’ and prospective delegates and firms are keen to understand what these changes will truly mean for them. Tracy Savage, academic head of UK programmes at BARBRI, is tackling your top five questions this week.

  1. What are the key dates I should be aware of and how long will it all take?

The SQE will officially be introduced on 1 September 2021 with the first set of computer-based assessments of SQE1 scheduled for November 2021. These will be held twice a year, in May and November. Some legal training providers, like BARBRI, are offering flexible SQE Prep course lengths to suit individual needs. For example, law graduates can choose between a flexible full-time (10 week) or part-time (20-week) course. Alternatively, there will be an extended part-time option of 40 weeks for non-law graduates or anyone who wishes to take longer for preparation, with the inaugural SQE1 Prep course starting in January 2021, enrolments for which are already open.

However, it’s worth noting that there will be transitionary period lasting up to 2032, which will give students who have already started on the academic pathway to become a solicitor the option to continue qualifying as solicitors in the traditional way, through the Legal Practice Course (LPC). That said, I expect the overlap between the two routes to be much shorter than the 11 years allowed for by the SRA.

  1. What are the key differences between the GDL/LPC and SQE?

The most important differentiator is that the SQE is a centralised and standardised exam, which is divided into two stages and will be run by Kaplan. In stark contrast, both the GDL and LPC are ‘courses’ that culminate in students sitting internal exams that are set by their individual providers or law schools. It’s also worth noting that unlike existing learning models, the SQE does not offer elective modules.

Instead, SQE1 will cover legal knowledge and procedure, while SQE2 is designed to test practical skills and legal knowledge. Since the SQE will eventually be replacing both the GDL and LPC, law and non-law students alike will have to sit the SQE before being eligible for admission to the roll of solicitors. Though there is currently no rule stipulating that law graduates must complete a prep course in advance of taking the SQE, the general expectation is that most are likely to opt-in for some additional learning to ensure they are exam ready.

One of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s rationales for introducing the SQE is to ensure consistency and higher standards across the legal profession – the idea being that all aspiring solicitors will enter the profession after studying the same subjects and having taken exactly the same rigorous centralised exams. This new route also expands the Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) opportunities, whereas before the options available were the training contract, or ‘equivalent means’, which was difficult to prove.

The SQE will ultimately provide a completely new approach to legal qualification for lawyers looking to practise in England and Wales but it will follow a similar structure as what’s already in place in the U.S. with its bar exams. With over 50 years’ experience in designing and running market-leading these prep courses, BARBRI is highly experienced in this style of exam. BARBRI has also collaborated with a number of universities including The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London and the University Paris Dauphine to support its comprehensive preparation programme and help prepare learners for success.

  1. How realistic is it to combine Solicitors Qualifying Exam preparation with a job?

This is arguably one of the most attractive features of the SQE. Under this new system, it will be possible for learners to gain two years’ QWE either before, during and after they have sat and passed the SQE. Designed to be as flexible as possible, it enables aspiring lawyers to obtain QWE in one block with a single employer, or in stages with up to four different placements. QWE could include a placement during a law degree; working in a law clinic, or voluntary work in a charitable organisation as well as paid paralegal roles. This is why learning flexibility will prove invaluable.

  1. Who is the most likely to benefit from this new route to legal qualification?

One of the SRA’s key drivers for introducing the SQE is to boost diversity in the legal profession by addressing the damaging bottleneck that has been created by the volume of students on the LPC often outstripping the number of training contract places.

Additionally, independent research from Hook Tangaza highlights that students could save up to £38,000 by qualifying with SQE. It estimates that the market spend on courses leading to qualification as a solicitor was £164 million in 2019-2020. However, the SQE allows a faster route to qualification which will naturally have an impact on spending.

The flexibility of this new approach reduces this risk and makes it more attractive for students who are self-funding their studies as they can ‘mix and match’ their periods of study with blocks of work experience, which can be ‘banked’ and counted towards the required two years’ of qualifying work experience.

  1. How much will the SQE cost?

The fee for the SQE should be broken down by exam and also preparation. According to the SRA, when it is introduced in September 2021, the fee for taking both SQE assessments will be £3,980. This will cover:

  • SQE1 – with two exams consisting of 180 questions, testing candidates’ functional legal knowledge, this will cost £1,558.
  • SQE2 – set to test both practical legal knowledge and skills with written and oral tasks, this exam will have a fee of £2,422.

It’s worth noting that exams fees are not currently eligible for any funding.

However, this isn’t the case for SQE Prep courses. Although any prep courses that you undertake with your chosen learning provider would need to be considered as an additional fee, there is financial aid available depending on your circumstances. This would need to be outlined by your learning provider.

Starting in January 2021, BARBRI’s SQE1 40-week Prep course starts from £2,999. For more information and to enrol today, visit the BARBRI website