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The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

updated on 19 April 2024

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is the centralised system of exams that all prospective solicitors must pass to qualify.

To qualify, candidates must pass both stages of the SQE and complete two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE). As a result, law schools have launched various SQE preparation courses to support aspiring lawyers who will be qualifying via the SQE. Unlike the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC), the SQE isn’t a course but rather a series of exams that’s divided into two stages: SQE1 and SQE2.

Read LCN’s guide to SQE preparation courses for more details about what’s on offer?

If you’re a non-law student wondering whether you need to take a law conversion course before the SQE, read our advice in this Oracle.

Like the old system, solicitors must still complete two years’ work experience (ie, QWE) before they qualify. However, unlike the traditional training contract model, this can now be split over placements with up to four firms/organisations. Other forms of experience (eg, volunteering in a law centre) may also count towards the total experience needed to qualify. That said, many firms will continue to run the two-year training contract structure to make up the QWE aspect of the SQE, as they’re keen to have their future lawyers train with them directly.

There are four things you’ll need to qualify as a solicitor through the SQE. You must:

  • have a university degree or equivalent in any subject (law or non-law);
  • pass the character and suitability assessment set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA);
  • pass SQE1 and SQE2; and
  • have two years’ QWE.

Find out more about The University of Law's SQE, LPC and law conversion courses today:

SQE stage one

The first stage, SQE1, covers ‘functioning legal knowledge’. It tests not just your knowledge of the law, but how you’d apply it in real-life situations as a solicitor.

SQE1 is made up of two exams, each containing 180 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) that test how candidates would apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills in real scenarios across different practice areas. 

The first 180-question exam covers:

  • business law and practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • contract;
  • tort; and
  • legal system of England and Wales.

The second SQE1 exam covers:

  • property practice;
  • wills and the administration of estates;
  • solicitors accounts;
  • land law;
  • trusts; and
  • criminal law and practice.

Find out more about SQE1 in this LCN says by solicitor apprentice Holly Moore: ‘How I aced my SQE1 exams’.

SQE stage two

SQE2 covers ‘core legal skills’ and involves both oral and written assessments. Emphasis on the everyday skills of lawyering, such as drafting contracts and interviewing clients, means that it shares some similarities with LPC exams. SQE2 tests whether your practical skills are at the standard required of a newly qualified solicitor.

SQE2 assesses the following five key skills:

  • client interviewing and attendance note/legal analysis;
  • advocacy;
  • case and matter analysis – including planning negotiations;
  • legal research;
  • legal writing; and
  • legal drafting.

These skills are assessed across five practice areas:

  • criminal litigation;
  • dispute resolution;
  • property practice;
  • wills and intestacy, probate administration and practice; and
  • business organisations, rules and procedures (eg, money laundering and financial services).

SQE2 is made up of 16 practical exercises (four oral skills assessments and 12 written skills assessments) covering the five areas of law above. It’s a uniform assessment, meaning that all students sit the same exam. The 16 exercises take place across multiple days but result in one overall mark. 

While it isn’t technically necessary to complete a preparation course before taking SQE2, it’s unlikely that two years' QWE alone will develop the wide-ranging skills and knowledge needed to pass the 16 exercises, as your work experience will probably not cover all five of the practice areas being assessed. Completing an SQE preparation course with an employer or higher education provider prior to attempting both stages of the SQE is an attractive option for many candidates. 

Where will SQE assessments take place?

Students will sit the SQE at their nearest Pearson test centre  (where driving theory tests in England and Wales take place). SQE2 oral assessments are available only in Cardiff, Manchester, London and Birmingham currently, with more locations being made available in the future. It’s important for students to note that not every sitting of the SQE2 will be available in each of those locations.

There’ll be multiple exam sittings throughout the year, providing flexibility to students, law schools and employers.

What counts as QWE?

QWE can be gained in up to four placements at different organisations and may include volunteering at a law clinic or working in a paralegal role at a law firm. It can be undertaken before, during and/or after completing SQE1 and SQE2.

A single placement doesn’t have to be a minimum length of time – the two-year total just needs to be completed within the maximum of four separate periods of QWE.

Each placement must be signed off by a solicitor at the organisation, compliance officer for legal practice, or failing the first two, another solicitor outside the organisation with direct experience of the candidate’s work. The burden is on the confirming solicitor to decide whether the QWE meets the SRA's requirements. 

QWE isn’t assessed by the SRA, unlike SQE1 and SQE2. But as SQE2 tests practical skills, QWE should involve candidates learning the skills they’ll need to pass SQE2.

There’ll no longer be a requirement for trainee solicitors to work in a specific number of different areas of law, or experience both contentious and non-contentious practice areas.

Many firms have already confirmed plans to continue offering two-year training contracts. Firms aren’t obliged to shorten the period of training they offer if a candidate has already gained some experience, and many have training programmes that prepare solicitors for life within a specific specialism, working environment and client base. Many firms have also said that they’d like their trainees to complete both stages of the SQE before they start the practical training contract, which isn’t the structure the SRA intended.

Some employers may prefer longer training contracts that include part-time study so that trainees can prepare for SQE1 and SQE2 while working. ‘Big four’ accountancy firm Deloitte (which also provides legal services and trains solicitors as an alternative business structure) has launched a three-year training contract that combines working as a trainee solicitor with studying to pass SQE1 and 2 at The University of Law one day a week. A spokesperson for the firm said that the approach will enable law graduates to start their training contracts “straight out of university, allowing them to start earning immediately while gaining qualifying legal work experience before sitting their SQE1 and 2”.

On top of this, apprenticeships, graduate apprenticeships and paralegal work are all fantastic ways to build up QWE.

For more information on QWE, read:

How much will the SQE cost?

The cost of taking the SQE is £4,564. This is broken down into:

  • SQE1 – £1,798; and
  • SQE2 – £2,766.

Unhelpfully, these figures don’t include the SQE-preparation courses that many candidates will take before attempting the exams.

LCN has created a guide to SQE preparation courses, which includes the costs and course content on offer at different law schools and universities. You can also find more information on costs in: How much does the SQE cost?

SQE preparation courses

It isn’t compulsory to complete a preparation course to take the SQE. However, many candidates will choose to take a preparation course to give themselves the best chance of passing the SQE.

A range of postgraduate SQE1 and SQE2 preparation courses have been developed by providers such as BARBRIBPPThe University of Law and QLTS School. These providers are offering full-time and part-time study options.

Find out more about The University of Law's SQE preparation courses via their website.

Non-law students are no longer required to take a law conversion course before embarking on the SQE. However, for those who’ve secured a training contract spot, many firms will require their non-law trainees to complete some form of conversion course before starting their chosen SQE preparation course. For example, RPC has said that its future non-law trainees will complete The University of Law’s Postgraduate Diploma in Law and then the Masters in Legal Practice.

To find out more about whether you need to take a law conversion course before embarking on the SQE as a non-law student, read this Oracle.

Do you want more information on SQE preparation courses? Read our non-exhaustive guide to help get you started and read ‘the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE): everything that you need to know.’

What are the transitional arrangements if I've already started the GDL or LPC?

Anyone who started a law degree, GDL or LPC before September 2021 can qualify through the old system. They’ll have until 2032 to complete the route and qualify as solicitors. However, they may choose to qualify through SQE if they prefer.

Many firms are already recruiting trainees to qualify via the SQE, so it’s worth looking into what your preferred law firms are doing.

Law schools could also stop offering the LPC before the old route officially expires in 2032, depending on how firms make the transition.

‘Are law firms still recruiting LPC graduates?’ – we take a look at this question in The Oracle.

Some firms have confirmed that they’ll be taking on a hybrid cohort, which consists of LPC and SQE applicants as part of the transition.

Candidates who start their university degree after September 2021 will have to qualify as a solicitor via the SQE.

Should I do the GDL/LPC or the SQE?

If you’re a law student, you may have the choice between the current, LPC-based route or taking the SQE.

Read LCN’s ‘LPC or SQE: which route should you take?’ Feature for our advice.

Plus, find out more about The University of Law's LPC and law conversion courses via its website.

Watch this space

All the details about the SQE will be comprehensively covered here on LawCareers.Net, viathe Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE): everything that you need to know’ and on our dedicated SQE hub, sponsored by The University of Law, as soon as we learn more.