The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a new set of tests that will be introduced in 2021, replacing the GDL and LPC as the assessment that must be passed to qualify as a solicitor.

Unlike the GDL and LPC, the new SQE is not a course but a series of exams, which are divided into two stages. Universities and law schools are currently developing new courses to prepare students for SQE.

SQE does not require a candidate to complete a two-year training contract with a law firm before becoming a qualified solicitor. “Substantial” legal work experience will still be required, but this can now be split over placements with up to four firms. Other forms of experience (eg, volunteering in a law centre) may also count toward the total experience needed to qualify. It is expected that the total work experience required will still amount to two years.

There is more detail below but in simple terms, 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).

SQE stage one

Stage one is known as “functioning legal knowledge”. This means that stage one is designed to test not just your knowledge of the law, but how you would apply it in real-life situations as a solicitor.

This is likely to involve six online multiple-choice exams covering substantive and procedural law, plus commercial law, research skills and writing skills.

The syllabus that candidates could expect to be tested on for SQE stage one shares some similarities with the GDL, although the new focus on applying knowledge to real scenarios is different.

SQE stage one is supposed to be completed before moving on to SQE stage two, but it may be possible to complete both stages at the same time – many details about the new exam are not yet confirmed as of Autumn 2018.

SQE stage two

Stage two 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.

What will the SQE assessments be like?

Kaplan, the organisation appointed to oversee the new assessment, has revealed that at least some parts of the SQE will involve multiple-choice questions, which will be designed to test candidates’ ability to apply legal knowledge to different situations.

Candidates will sit SQE at Pearson national test centres, where learner drivers take their theory tests.

What counts as qualifying work experience to become a solicitor?

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) wants candidates to gain their QWE in between SQE stages one and two, unlike the current system where trainees complete the LPC before starting a two-year training contract.

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.

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?

Unfortunately, the cost of preparing for and taking SQE is still unknown. Remember that the SQE itself is an assessment, not a course – it will be for universities and law schools to decide how much to charge for courses that prepare students to pass the SQE.

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 2020 (or 2021 if the SQE is delayed) 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 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.

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 2031.

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 2020 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

As ever, all the details about the SQE will be made available on LawCareers.Net as soon as they are revealed, so check back for news and extensive coverage over the months ahead.