To SQE or not to SQE?

Jonny Hurst - To SQE or not to SQE?

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:

  • proceed with the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and then secure a two-year training contract; or
  • wait until 2020 (or later) to qualify as a solicitor via the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) and the revised system of qualifying work experience (QWE).

Current route to qualification

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.

New rules governing qualification

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.

SQE and QWE explained

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: ‘Functioning legal knowledge’, which, as currently proposed, will consist of six online MCQ tests covering a broad range of substantive and procedural law in the ‘reserved areas’ plus commercial/business law and a research and writing assessment; and
  • SQE 2: ‘Core legal skills’, which will consist of various role play and simulated skills assessments in a range of legal contexts.

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.

Transitional provisions

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?  

Reasons to wait for the SQE

  • SQE test-preparation courses might be shorter and possibly cheaper than the LPC. To progress more quickly into the workplace with less debt undoubtedly has its attractions, but until we are nearer 2020 (or possibly later), we simply won’t know whether these aspirations of the SRA will actually come to fruition.
  • You could use the time while you wait for the SQE assessment and test-preparation courses to become available to gain valuable work experience. If nothing else, this may improve your CV and skill set. If you log your work experience carefully, you may even find that it can count towards your QWE as part of the qualification process under the new regime, which will then save you time on your qualification journey. However, it remains to be seen whether all legal employers will be prepared to provide the required QWE certification in respect of similar work experience: it is anticipated that a number of leading law firms could be unwilling to recognise such placements as QWE because doing so could be seen as diluting the currency of their much sought-after training contracts.
  • The new system of QWE, along with the possible predicted rise in law firms taking on apprentices through new graduate entry schemes, may mean there are more extensive opportunities for you to build your work experience if you are not in a rush to qualify under the existing system.
  • QWE is likely to be easier to obtain than a training contract, which is the part of the current qualification process that many candidates struggle to secure. However, until the new system beds down, there has to be some doubt as to whether all QWE will be held in the same esteem by legal recruiters.

Reasons to proceed with the current route while you can

  • The earliest date you could sit the first SQE assessments is in the autumn of 2020, but this timetable could slip, so you may have to wait a little longer than the SRA currently anticipates to get through the new system.
  • The SRA has been very clear that the SQE assessments will be rigorous and challenging, so if you have the choice, you may not wish to be a ‘guinea pig’ in the first few cohorts.
  • The length, cost and availability of SQE preparation courses and the cost of the SQE exam itself are not yet known, nor can they be accurately predicted while the SRA is still finalising the format of the SQE assessments. So you are taking a gamble, weighing up the cost of the LPC against an unknown cost at this stage.
  • If funding is an issue for you, you can currently take advantage of postgraduate loan funding from the Student Loans Company by selecting an integrated master’s programme which incorporates the LPC, such as BPP’s LLM Legal Practice (Solicitors). Pure SQE test-preparation courses and the fees for SQE assessments are unlikely to be eligible for this funding.
  • If you opt for a pure SQE test-preparation course, you will be studying a narrower curriculum that the current LPC. In SQE 1, you will only be tested on the equivalent of a combination of the current LPC core subjects and substantive law from your core law degree/GDL, plus a research and writing exercise. If you go down the LPC route, you will get to choose three elective areas from a wide range of practice-focused subjects which students currently select and align to their career aspirations. In contrast, electives do not feature in the SQE at all.
  • Getting the opportunity to study three electives on the LPC gives you a chance to ‘test the water’ by studying specialist practice areas. This helps those without training contracts to make more informed decisions both in relation to the firms they should be applying to and their training contract seat preferences. It is also easier in the recruitment process for LPC students to use their electives to demonstrate a genuine interest in particular sectors, particularly those practice areas in which it is difficult to acquire relevant work experience.
  • You will not be tested on skills such as advocacy, drafting and interviewing fully until SQE2, so if you opt for a pure test-preparation course for SQE 1, you may find yourself starting in the workplace without a grounding in these important skills, having to learn on the job. Most law firms who currently take on LPC graduates do so knowing that they have started to develop these skills and knowledge of the law and practice in relation to some of the firm’s key areas of work through their elective studies. So until the new system beds down, firms may still prefer LPC graduates.

Conclusion

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.

Jonny Hurst is the head of faculty for the LPC in London at BPP University Law School, a former partner of DMH Stallard LLP and the author of ‘Becoming a Lawyer’ published by BPP Learning Media.

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