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Spotlight on Julie Brannan: what’s the SQE and QWE all about?

updated on 02 August 2022

Reading time: seven minutes

How easy is it to swap from the LPC to the SQE?

The Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Solicitor’s Qualifying Exam (SQE) aren’t designed to be at the same level. The LPC is a training course, followed by assessments which exist to prepare you for day one of your training contract while the SQE is a system of exams set at the qualified standard. The exams are split into two stages – SQE1 and SQE2. And SQE1 is in turn split into Functioning Legal Knowledge 1 and Functioning Legal Knowledge 2 (FLK1 and FLK2).

To find out more about what qualifying work experience (QWE) is and what counts as QWE, head to LCN’s SQE hub and read our Feature which details everything we know about the new system so far.

Any aspiring lawyer who has passed the LPC can be exempt from SQE1 but will have to take SQE2 and build up two years of QWE. Alternatively, if they are already working as a paralegal they can qualify with their LPC through the equivalent means route, by submitting a portfolio to demonstrate that their work experience is equivalent to a training contract.

The swapper route is designed for those looking for an alternative pathway into the legal profession.

Find out more about studying the LPC at The University of Law.

What do non-law students need to know about the SQE?

Non-law students must learn the fundamental laws that govern England and Wales as opposed to the procedural, professional law that solicitors’ practice. For example, they need to learn criminal law as well as criminal procedure, whereas a law graduate will only need to learn the latter. The non-law graduate route is extremely popular but it involves students doing a longer SQE training course than law graduates.

Interested in criminal law? Read this LCN Says: ‘SQE manual series: why you should study criminal law’.

Training providers have been coming up with different courses of professional subjects which is a good match for law graduates. Other courses will cover compulsory subjects would be better for non-law students.

For more on non-law students, the SQE and law conversion courses, read this Oracle. Plus, Want to convert to law? Find out about the law conversion courses on offer at The University of Law

Is the SQE suitable if you already have experience working in the legal profession?

The SQE recognises people who have worked in law firms by giving them the opportunity to qualify using their previous legal work experience, if it meets the requirements for qualifying work experience, and passing SQE1 and SQE2. This means they don’t have to go back to the beginning to take a law degree.

Read this Oracle to find out how to get your QWE accredited: ‘How do I get my QWE accredited?’.

The SQE preparation courses – the courses designed to prepare SQE candidates to pass SQE1 and SQE2 –  are flexible. Depending on the provider, there are options to study part-time and online. Getting exposure to real life practice and learning the procedural subjects works hand in hand because students get to see the law in operation while learning the legal concepts.

Find out more about The University of Law’s SQE preparation courses!

For firms continuing to use the two-year training contract as a candidate’s QWE, how likely are these firms to reduce this training period if a candidate has already collected six months’ worth of QWE for example?

It’s up to the individual law firm – any aspiring lawyer should check this with their prospective employer to understand their position on this.

To qualify through the SQE route, you must:

  • have a degree in any subject or equivalent level 6 qualification;
  • pass both stages of the SQE assessment;
  • have two years' full-time (or equivalent) QWE;
  • pass the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) character and suitability requirements.

Law firms can’t prevent you from being admitted as a solicitor if you have met these requirements. But they may not have a qualified role for you. So, ensure you communicate with them. You need to find out whether they expect you to:

  • have built up your two years of training/QWE before joining the firm and qualifying; or
  • complete their training programme.

Should candidates enrol on SQE prep courses and take exams before securing QWE/training contract? Is it the same advice as LPC route?

QWE is a great opportunity to develop the skills assessed in SQE2. So, I would encourage candidates to get work experience before they attempt SQE2. The SQE2 assessment will test your ability to write and draft like a lawyer, interview clients, and perform advocacy. Candidates should do the QWE before their SQE2 because this experience will help them to perform well on the SQE exams.

What should aspiring solicitors be aware of when it comes to QWE?

Qualifying work experience is any form of working in legal services that allows future lawyers the opportunity to develop the competencies specified in the statement of solicitor competence. The statement of solicitor competence is what we assess in SQE1 and SQE2. So, try to get some broad experience during your two years of QWE and develop those competencies to ensure you’re learning from the expert practitioners around you and soaking up information regarding how they deal with ethical issues.

You have to get your QWE signed off by a solicitor. They confirm that you are claiming the right period of QWE. But they aren’t the ones who decide if you’ve reached the required standard – the SRA is the one that checks that through the SQE exams. This is to create a fair standard for everybody coming through the process and to maintain a consistent standard.

How can aspiring solicitors get the best out of their QWE

Start from the statement of solicitor competence and recognise that this is a great learning opportunity for you to understand what you will be assessed on in the SQE. Copy the best practice by observing the practitioners around you and always ask them for feedback on your work.

It will help you to keep a record of the work you’ve done so you can take your work to your supervisors (who will sign off your QWE) to demonstrate the experience that’s given you the opportunity to develop the competencies you need to practise as a solicitor.

Could you explain the pass mark for the SQE1 and SQE2 exams?

In the past for the LPC, we had a fixed pass mark of 50% but the pass mark on a degree is usually 40% and for the Bar Practice Course it was 60%. This shows we wouldn’t expect students to get full marks, we’d only expect them to get some questions correct. But why it was 40, 50 or 60% is arbitrary.

On SQE, we have a panel of experts who go through each paper and decide on the standard of each paper by reference to the level of difficulty of the assessment. For example, in November 2021 SQE1, the pass mark for FLK1 was 57% and for FLK2 was 56%. This recognises that the FLK2 assessment was judged to be slightly more difficult than FLK1 The mechanism of adjusting the pass mark on each exam to reflect the level of difficulty ensures that the standard on the SQE is fair, regardless of whether you take your exams in 2022 or 2024.

What’s included in the mark scheme for the SQE1 and SQE2 exams?

If you’d like to know the assessment specifications, head to the SQE page on the SRA website which sets out the curriculum, how the assessment exercises work and what the assessment criteria are for each of the assessments.

The SQE1 tests legal knowledge and assesses people’s ability to recognise what area of law the question is about and to apply relevant legal principles to reach the appropriate solution for a client. It covers all the mandatory subjects on the LLB and compulsory LPC subjects. On SQE1, each of FLK1 and FLK2 covers a wide range of legal topics.  The first challenge for students is to figure out what the relevant legal area is – eg whether the question is about tort or land law. The SQE2 exams test legal skills, such as people’s ability to write, draft and analyse questions.

Is there anything else students should know about the SQE exams?

They should look carefully at the Assessment Specification which explains the content, criteria and format of the exams. The mitigating circumstances policy is also helpful to be aware of if something goes wrong. And of course, candidates should look at the sample questions.

Do candidates completing the SQE prep courses receive a qualification/grade – will this depend on the provider/type of prep course they go for?

Successfully passing the SQE entitles a candidate to progress towards admission as a solicitor. We don’t award any academic qualification. As you say, individual providers may do so, particularly if they are universities or have degree awarding powers.

How were the SQE results last year compared to the expectations (ie, were they better or worse than anticipated?)

SQE is about standards not numbers – in other words about assuring the right standard, rather than having a quota for the numbers who should pass. We were very happy that the November 2021 SQE1 assessment worked well and that those who passed had properly demonstrated they could apply legal knowledge and were ready to progress to the skills assessments in SQE2.

Read this LCN Says: ‘SQE manual series: why you should study tort law’ if you’re interested in tort law.

Julie Brannan (she/her) is the director of education and training at the SRA – you can connect with her via LinkedIn.