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The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

updated on 03 March 2020

For the latest update on the Solicitors Qualifying Exam, read The Solicitors Qualifying Exam: everything we know so far 

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a new system of exams that will be introduced in 2021 that all prospective solicitors will have to pass to qualify. From 2021, it will no longer be required to complete a law degree or law conversion and the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Instead, candidates must pass both stages of the SQE and complete two years of qualifying work experience. This means that law schools will stop offering the LPC, while new law conversion courses will emerge alongside the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), offering a range of options to help students prepare for the SQE.   Unlike the GDL and LPC, the new SQE is not a course but simply a series of exams, which are divided into two stages. This means that the SQE itself does not involve any education or training. Universities and law schools are currently developing new courses to prepare students for the SQE.

Like the old system, solicitors will still have to complete two years’ work experience before they qualify, but 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 toward the total experience needed to qualify.

There are four things you will need to qualify as a solicitor through 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 (this is the same as the old system);
  • pass SQE stages one and two; and
  • have two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE, also called QLE which means 'qualifying legal experience').

SQE stage one

Stage one (SQE1) covers “functioning legal knowledge”. It is designed to test not just your knowledge of the law, but how you would apply it in real-life situations as a solicitor.

The proposed format for SQE1 is to split assessments into two exams of 180 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) each, testing how candidates would apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills in real scenarios. SQE1 involves:

  • legal research and writing (the only practical element of SQE1);
  • principles of professional conduct, public and administrative law, and the legal systems of England and Wales;
  • dispute resolution in contract or tort;
  • property law;
  • commercial and corporate law;
  • wills and the administration of estates and trusts; and
  • criminal law.

SQE stage two

Stage two (SQE2) covers “core legal skills”, consisting of practical skills assessments involving role play and simulation. The emphasis on the everyday skills of lawyering, such as drafting contracts and interviewing clients, means that it shares some similarities with the LPC.

SQE2 assesses the following five key skills:

  • client interviewing;
  • advocacy/persuasive oral communication;
  • case and matter analysis – including planning negotiations;
  • legal research and written advice; and
  • legal drafting.

Assessments will involve practical exercises such as mock interviews with actors playing the roles of clients. Under the current proposals, practical skills will be assessed in two areas of law chosen by the candidate. These choices are:

  • criminal practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • property;
  • wills and the administration of estates; and
  • business practice.

Where will SQE assessments take place?

Candidates will sit SQE at Pearson national test centres (the places where learner drivers take their theory tests).

What counts as qualifying work experience to become a solicitor?

QWE/QLE 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

However, most law firms prefer to train up their own solicitors, so it is likely that many people will continue to complete their two years’ QWE at the same firm, much like the old training contract system.

This has prompted fears of a ‘two-tier’ system where many firms prefer QWE that resembles a traditional training contract and overlook candidates who have gained the required work experience through a mix of volunteering and paralegal work.

How much will the SQE cost students?

According to the SRA, fees to take the exams could range from £3,000 - £4,500. This would be broken down into:

  • SQE1 (written and computer-based assessments) - £1,100 - £1,650; and
  • SQE2 (practical assessments) - £1,900 - £2,850

Unhelpfully, these figures do not include the SQE-preparation courses that many candidates will take before attempting the exams. The SRA remains vague on this subject, saying only that the SQE should cost less than the LPC. This conspicuously fails to mention the GDL, which might be roughly equivalent to what a SQE-prep course might cost. Ultimately, it will be commercially-driven universities and law schools that decide the fees for these courses.

Clearly, future solicitors need to know what the cost of qualifying will be. LawCareers.Net will bring you this information as soon as it becomes available.

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

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

However, City law firms have indicated that they won’t cater for the old route until 2032 – they are likely to require all candidates to take the SQE from 2022.

This is because firms don’t want dual streams of SQE and LPC graduates in the same trainee intake. In turn, if firms only want their trainees to do SQE, law schools will stop teaching the LPC as it will no longer be profitable. This means that LPC teaching could end before the old route officially expires in 2032.

If you are a GDL or LPC student or are planning to start one of these courses in 2019 or 2020, don’t worry. The introduction of SQE is still at least a couple of years away at least and nothing will change until it is introduced.

Candidates who start a university degree after September 2021 will have to take SQE.

Should I do the GDL/LPC or wait for SQE?

If you are a first-year law or non-law students, by the time you graduate you may have the choice between the current, LPC-based route or taking the SQE.

Before making a decision, read this article weighing up the benefits of SQE against those of the LPC by Jonny Hurst, former law firm partner and current head of the LPC faculty at BPP University Law School in London.

Watch this space

All the details about the SQE will be comprehensively covered here on LawCareers.Net as soon as we learn more, so check back for news as we head further into 2020.