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updated on 23 February 2023
Reading time: six minutes
My name is Colin Hornby. I’ve recently passed the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) – SQE1 and SQE2. I’m now a consultant solicitor at national firm Taylor Rose MW.
I found myself wanting to pursue a career in law after securing a role in administration at a law firm in 2011. My interest in law was spiked after I overheard the lawyers on phone calls with clients and opponents and the difference they were able to make using their skills.
I moved to another law firm in 2012 where I spent eight years helping clients regarding family law issues. During this time, I started a part-time law degree and the rest is history.
My top tips for passing SQE
For the best chance of SQE success, I’d strongly recommend anyone sitting the SQE exams to consider an SQE preparation course. My course provider QLTS School provided me with all the tools I needed to succeed. Although I’d graduated a few months before embarking on the SQE, its syllabus is extremely wide and you need to know a lot. SQE1 is split into two parts and involves two multiple-choice exams (180 questions each) with 360 questions in total. The SRA says that it should take around 1.7 minutes to answer (including reading time), which seems fast! I’ve outlined some tips for SQE1 below.
Read Holly Moore's advice on how she passed the SQE as an apprentice.
The SQE1 exam can be extremely draining and there might come a time during the exam when you second-guess yourself or spend too much time considering the answers. Like I did, students should consider flagging questions they’re not sure about and come back to them at the end. If necessary, it might also be worth taking a short toilet break and splashing your face with cold water.
Nerves get to us all. However, it’s how you deal with them that matters. I found it helpful to ensure I’d eaten well the day before and had had enough sleep. Another key element is hydration, which is important for memory and focus. Don’t underestimate these simple but effective factors.
Some students might want to try a mock exam to help them prepare. My advice is to cover the exam content first and then try a mock exam later. This way you can focus on any gaps or weaknesses, making further revision more purposeful.
SQE2 takes place across five days – three days make up the written assessment and two days are for the oral assessment.
To get a sense of what you need to know to successfully complete SQE2, I’d suggest reviewing the exam specification on the SRA website. It’s also important to note that you may or may not be given excerpts from statutes/case law/procedure rules. For this exam, I made sure I could recall the law without needing to look at any materials. When practising mock exams, I’d strongly recommend students do so without looking at sources of law as this will give them genuine insights into what parts they need to work on. Don’t leave it to chance.
For SQE2 I practised the advocacy by recording myself and having my partner/family/colleagues listen to me. This is the part of the exam I felt most anxious about but I actually ended up doing really well. My advice regarding the oral part is to practise, practise, practise. It’ll pay dividends come exam day.
For the written part, attempt as many mock questions and assessments as possible without looking at the answer. It’s then useful to compare your answer with the SRA’s answer to see whether there are any shortcomings. Many students have contacted me to say they felt their answers were very different from the ones provided in the mock materials; don’t let this put you off, I was the same. Ensure you’ve covered the legal and factual points correctly and try not to worry about your individual style of writing, just make sure you’re clear and concise.
It’s also helpful to review the standard expected (ie, the threshold standard), which you can find on the SRA website. Remember, you’ll be required to demonstrate in the exams that you’re at the level of a day-one solicitor. Level 3 is the standard expected. Students should look at this to ensure they’re familiar with the standard they should be at when attempting mock exams, for example.
Here are two other tips:
What I’d have done differently
Having reflected on my journey, it’s safe to say that I’d have started my preparation for the assessments much earlier. I left myself only four months to prepare for the SQE2 exam, which was largely because I was waiting for the SQE1 results. Starting your preparation around six months in advance of any exam dates is probably a more advised timeframe. If you leave it as late as I did, you’ll need to make sure you’re incredibly disciplined and will likely have to make many sacrifices. This isn't advised though as it’s likely you’ll burn yourself out if you leave the preparation too late.
Why I believe the SQE is introducing a new kind of solicitor and why firms should favour candidates who’ve sat SQE
The SQE, especially the SQE2 exam, is difficult to pass. On the first sitting of SQE1 in November 2021, almost half of students failed. SQE2’s pass mark is around 65% – this is a strong 2:1 level at university. It’s a centrally marked exam so every student must reach the same high standards expected. With the Legal Practice Course (LPC), universities could set their own pass marks and some providers had more than a 90% pass rate. A lot of the LPC exam is open book but the SQE is closed book.
As the SQE becomes more popular, firms should start to recognise that SQE students who pass are likely to be better equipped as a day-one solicitor – especially considering the standard expected.
Difference between LPC and SQE
In short, the main difference, from my perspective, is the difficulty level and the standard expected of you in the SQE. Students also face a longer period to qualification in most instances because of the difference between the training contract and qualifying work experience (QWE).
With the LPC route, you must secure a training contract after sitting the LPC. With the SQE, you may have already banked your two-years’ QWE even before doing any formal qualifications/exams.
You can find out more about what’s expected regarding QWE via LawCareers.Net.
I’d been working at a law firm for eight years before I sat the SQE exam and well before I’d considered doing a law degree. With the SQE, I could register my QWE in June 2020 on my SQE account (one year before finishing my law degree). This meant that all I needed to do was wait for the SQE’s introduction, pass both exams and then apply to become a solicitor. If I’d chosen to qualify via the LPC, I’d still be completing my training contract (if I’d have been lucky enough to be offered one).
I regularly post and document my experience with the SQE on my LinkedIn account. Please feel free to follow me for free tips and advice.
Colin Hornby is a consultant solicitor at Taylor Rose MW.