updated on 16 January 2018
This is a question I am asked with increasing regularity. It seems LLB, non-law graduates and those graduating from a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) are all equally anxious to seek advice about whether they should:
For those who wish to qualify as a solicitor under the current system, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) requires candidates to have a qualifying law degree (or GDL), pass the LPC and complete a two-year ‘period of recognised training’ (more commonly known as a training contract) and meet the SRA’s criteria on character and suitability. This has been the recognised route for the majority of solicitors qualifying into the profession since the early 1990s and although the ‘equivalent means’ route has been available for a few years, it represents a small fraction of those entering the profession.
In April this year, the SRA announced that from September 2020, at the earliest, a new set of rules governing qualification will be introduced. To qualify under the new system, candidates will need to have a degree or equivalent in any subject, meet the SRA’s requirements on character and suitability, pass both SQE 1 and 2 and have two years QWE. It is important to note that the rules surrounding QWE are different to those that govern a training contract.
The SQE assessments will be set centrally by an independent assessment organisation appointed by the SRA and will be divided into two parts:
SQE 1 must be passed in its entirety before candidates can take SQE 2. It is also anticipated that candidates will be guided not to attempt SQE 2 before they have undertaken a substantial period of QWE. However, unlike the current training contract, which in most cases must be two years, with one firm covering a range of seats and both contentious and non-contentious work, QWE can be acquired by the candidate in up to four placements totalling two years. These placements may include work in law clinics or as a paralegal in a law firm, provided that the firm’s compliance officer for legal practice or a supervising solicitor certifies that the candidate has had the opportunity to develop toward the competencies required by a solicitor.
Candidates who start their qualification journey after September 2020 will have no option but to follow the new rules. However, transitional provisions will apply to any candidate who has already started one of the current qualification pathways before September 2020. Under the transitional provisions, which have not yet been finalised, students who have started a qualifying law degree, the GDL or the LPC before September 2020 will be able to qualify through either route, subject to a current proposed long stop date of 2031.
I expect the SRA will permit candidates to ‘jump ship’ from the current route to the new route if they have passed the LPC but have been unsuccessful in their search for a traditional training contract, although this will need to be clarified in the final transitional provisions. However, it should be noted that it is proposed that candidates cannot ‘mix and match’, so if they stick with the existing route, then they must obtain a training contract to qualify under those rules: they will not be able to build experience through the QWE rules instead. This may need to be reviewed when the SQE becomes more established, particularly if the number of traditional training contracts radically reduces and there are still a number of able LPC graduates looking to qualify. Perhaps the SRA would then give those candidates an exemption from SQE 1 but would otherwise require them to qualify under the new system? This is conjecture, so my advice to candidates, for now, is to commit to qualifying through one route or the other, rather than hoping that a hybrid option emerges.
So, if you have the choice, which system should you choose?
There is no doubt that a range of SQE test-preparation courses will emerge: some will be online and cheaper and will focus on just getting you through the test. Others will offer preparation for the tests alongside additional modules that will enhance your employability, key knowledge skills and competences for modern legal practice. The breadth of subject coverage in such programmes may end up closely resembling the current master’s versions of the LPC with SQE test preparation built-in. If such programmes become an expectation from a large part of the profession before you start your QWE, there is concern that as well as costing just as much (if not more overall) than the LPC, candidates on such enhanced programmes may end up being preferred over ones who have opted for a cheaper, quicker alternative.
‘To SQE or not to SQE?’ does not have a single correct answer for all students. Your decision whether to press ahead with the LPC and then to qualify under the current system after completing a training contract, or to wait to qualify under the new SQE/QWE regime will depend on a number of factors personal to you: your current qualifications and CV, the amount of work experience you have, your prospects of obtaining a training contract or QWE, and how easy it will be for you to secure funding for either route.
It is inevitable that the SQE, being a radical new qualification path, will take time to mature. Indeed, there is still so much we don’t know about the new system that those who commit to the SQE at this stage are taking a gamble. So if you are committed to becoming a solicitor and like most current law students, you have the choice between (a) the LPC/Training Contract route and (b) qualifying via the SQE and QWE, it may be a safer bet to get on with your career by taking the tried and tested route which is trusted by the profession. I believe so, and this is what I will be advising my own son, who will be graduating in 2018.