The Solicitors Qualifying Exam: Spring update

The new ‘super exam’ that all prospective solicitors will have to pass in order to qualify has been confirmed, but many questions remain unanswered. This article explains what we do and don’t know about the new system so far, as of April 2018.

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) has been approved in principle by the Legal Services Board. This means that it is certainly going ahead and that regulators, law firms and universities are now free to begin preparing for life under the new system. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that we know exactly how the exam will work and – crucially – what it will cost students. Below we run through the information that has been made available so far and shed what light we can on the issues that remain uncertain.

What is the SQE?

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam is a new framework of rules governing how to qualify as a solicitor that will replace the GDL and LPC.

To qualify as a solicitor under the new system, candidates must:

  • have a university degree or equivalent in any subject;
  • pass the character and suitability assessment set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (this is the same as the old system);
  • pass SQE stages one and two; and
  • have two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE).

SQE stage one

This is called “Functioning legal knowledge” and is likely to consist of six online multiple-choice exams covering substantive and procedural law, plus commercial law, research skills and writing skills.

SQE stage one must be completed before moving on to SQE stage two.

SQE stage two

Stage two covers “Core legal skills”, consisting of practical skills assessments through role play and simulation.

It is expected that candidates will gain their QWE in between stages one and two, unlike the current system where trainees complete the LPC before undertaking a two-year training contract. However, whether this will be the case in practice remains to be seen – many law firms have indicated their strong preference for candidates to complete their studies before starting as trainees.

Qualifying work experience

Unlike the two-year training contract at one firm under the current system, the two years’ QWE under SQE can be gained in up to four placements at different organisations. QWE may include volunteering at a law clinic or working in a paralegal role at a law firm.

However, most law firms remain strongly wedded to the training contract model, so it is unknown whether the increased flexibility offered by the new rules will help more people become solicitors in the long run. There are serious concerns that a ‘two-tier’ system will emerge, where firms prefer QWE that resembles a traditional training contract and overlook candidates who have gained their QWE through a mix of volunteering and paralegal work.

When is the SQE going to come into force?

September 2020.

How much will the SQE cost students?

Unfortunately, even the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the organisation responsible for this major change to education and training, does not know how much the SQE will cost. The SRA has said that “the market will decide” how much the exam will cost. Translated into plain English, this means that the SRA is content for law schools to design courses that prepare students for the SQE and charge whatever they think they can get away with. When pushed, the regulator anticipated that the SQE and whatever new prep course emerges will cost less than the current LPC, but this is pure speculation.

What we do know is that SQE stages one and two will be charged separately. Fees will be determined by the organisation that the SRA eventually appoints to provide SQE, but this appointment hasn’t happened yet.

What are the transitional arrangements?

Anyone who commences a law degree, GDL or LPC before September 2020 can qualify through the old system. They will have until 2031 to complete the route and qualify as solicitors. However, they may choose to qualify through the SQE if they prefer.

However, City law firms have indicated that they won’t cater for the old route until 2031 – they are likely to require all candidates to take the SQE from 2022.

Candidates who start a university degree after September 2020 will have to take the SQE. 

Does QWE mean the end of the traditional training contract?

Probably not. Although aspects of the training contract may change, it is very likely that most commercial law firms will continue to internally train up their entry-level lawyers. Firms want their juniors to be trained in how to work in a modern legal environment, as well as in the area/s of law in which the firm specialises. 

Law firms and academic institutions are now being encouraged to design their own approaches to recruitment and training to meet their needs.

How will students prepare for the SQE?

Universities and law schools will design new courses that prepare students to pass the SQE. Some may be basic and less expensive – simply preparing students for the exams. Others may be more expensive and include extra modules aimed at improving students’ employability or knowledge of a particular area of practice – much like some versions of the LPC. Many commercial firms will expect students to complete extra, relevant electives on these prep courses that are not part of SQE. It is important to remember that the SQE itself is just a series of exams, not a course, so many employers will want their trainees to do much more than just the SQE in preparation for life at their firms.  

As mentioned above, there is a danger that SQE could create a two-tier system where employers prefer expensive courses with extra electives to the cheaper alternatives. We still don’t know if the new system will cost students less, the same or more than the current system.

Should current first-year students press ahead with the GDL/LPC or wait for SQE?

Reasons to carry on with the old route

  • You may want to avoid being a ‘guinea pig’ for the new system in the first couple of cohorts.
  • If you’re interested in a career in the City, most City firms seem to prefer the old, LPC route. Many have bespoke LPC arrangements with law schools that prepare students for life at the firm.
  • Student Loans Company funding is available for the GDL and any LPC which includes a master’s component.
  • The nature and cost of new SQE courses is currently unknown.

Reasons to take the new SQE route

  • New SQE courses and exam costs might be cheaper than the current route – but they might not.
  • Gaining the work experience necessary to qualify will be more flexible, so students can avoid the training contract ‘bottleneck’ where many fail to qualify. However, it seems likely that some law firms will operate an unofficial hierarchy of work experience.
  • Candidates who fail SQE stage one won’t have to pay the cost of taking the “more expensive” SQE stage two.

Josh Richman is the senior editor of LawCareers.Net. 

We will be updating readers on all ‘super exam’ news as and when the situation develops, so stay tuned to LCN for information on the content of the exams, as well as new courses and what all of it will cost.

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