Should I do the GDL or wait for the Solicitors Qualifying Exam?

Dear Oracle

I’m in the final year of my non-law degree and have decided to pursue becoming a solicitor at a City firm, but I’m concerned about how upcoming changes to the system will affect me. Is there any point in doing the GDL before it is replaced by the new ‘super exam’?

The Oracle replies

Both courses of action are equally valid and you should also take your personal circumstances into account when making your decision – are you on course for at least a 2:1 and have you gained any significant work experience yet (legal or non-legal)?

If you are in a good position to start the GDL in September, there is no need to wait for the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) to be implemented. We say this because you mention that you are particularly looking to train at a City firm. We know that many City firms are highly critical of the new system and are keen to safeguard the traditional training contract model as much as possible, so why not take the route they prefer?

That said, there is no 'right' answer here - both courses of action have pros and cons. We recommend that you read the advice of BPP Law School’s Jonny Hurst, who has written in detail for LCN about the pros and cons of waiting for the SQE. We reproduce his thoughts on weighing up the SQE below.

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 do the GDL

  • The earliest date you could sit the first SQE assessments is in the autumn of 2020, but this timetable could slip – it is likely that the SQE will be delayed until 2021. Are you prepared to wait that long?
  • 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.

Read LawCareers.Net’s guide to the Solicitors Qualifying Exam.

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