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The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)

updated on 10 June 2021

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a new system of exams that will be introduced in September 2021, which 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 (SQE1 and SQE2); and
  • have two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE).

The format of the SQE

The SQE will be split into two stages: SQE1 and SQE2. Candidates are only allowed three attempts at each stage of the assessment. Both stages must be passed within six years.

SQE stage one

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

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

The first 180-question exam covers:

  • business law and practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • contract;
  • tort;
  • legal system of England and Wales; and
  • constitutional and administrative law, retained EU law and legal services.

The second SQE1 exam covers:

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

Both parts of SQE1 will also include questions on ethics and professional conduct.

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 six key skills:

  • client interviewing;
  • advocacy;
  • case and matter analysis
  • legal research
  • legal writing; and
  • legal drafting.

These skills are assessed across five practice areas:

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

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 is a uniform assessment, meaning that all students sit the same exam. The 16 exercises take place over multiple days, but result in one overall mark. 

It is not technically necessary to complete a preparation course before taking the SQE2, but it is 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 SQE2 preparation course with an employer or higher education provider may be an attractive option for many candidates. 

Where will SQE assessments take place?

Kaplan has been appointed by the SRA as the sole assessment provider for the SQE assessments. The assessments will be delivered in collaboration with Pearson VUE test centre across England and Wales and internationally  (where driving theory tests in England and Wales take place). SQE2 oral assessments will only be in Cardiff, Manchester and London initially.

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

What counts as qualifying work experience to become a solicitor?

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 does not 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 knowledge of the candidate’s work. The burden is on the confirming solicitor to decide whether the QWE meets the SRA's requirements. 

QWE is not assessed by the SRA, unlike SQE1 and 2. But as SQE2 tests practical skills, QWE should involve candidates learning the skills they will need to pass SQE2.

There will 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 will almost certainly continue to offer two-year training contracts. Firms are not 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.

Some employers may prefer longer training contracts that include part-time study so that trainees can prepare for SQE1 and 2 while working. ‘Big four’ accountancy firm Deloitte (which also provides legal services and train 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.”

Head to this article to find out more about QWE.

How much will the SQE cost?

The cost of taking the SQE is broken down into:

  • SQE1 (written and computer-based assessments) - £1,558; and
  • SQE2 (written and oral assessments) - £2,422

Unhelpfully, these figures do not include retakes or SQE preparation courses that many candidates will take before attempting the exams. Law schools and universities have not yet revealed how much they will be charging 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.

SQE preparation courses

It is not 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 are being developed by providers such as BARBRIBPPThe University of Law (ULaw) and QLTS School. These providers are offering full time and part-time study options.

BARBRI was the first provider to reveal fees for its new SQE courses. BARBRI’s 40-week SQE1 preparation course starts £2,999. It can also be completed over 10 or 20 weeks at the same cost. The first 40-week course will start in January 2021. Each course will be timed to lead directly into sitting the external SQE assessments, which can be sat at various times during the year.

BARBRI's SQE2 preparation course also starts from £2,999. It can be completed over eight or 16 weeks. The first 16-week SQE2 course will commence in December 2021, which is timed to prepare students to sit SQE2 assessments in April 2022.

ULaw’s new LLM Legal Practice – a course designed to prepare students for both stages of the SQE and replace the current LPC – will cost between £12,900 and £16,500, excluding the exam fees to take the SQE itself.

ULaw’s Peter Crisp, pro vice chancellor (external), said: “Our new programmes will enable students to pass the SQE with confidence as well as making them office-ready for practice in a law firm by empowering them with the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for a successful career in law.”

QLTS School’s preparation courses are based on written textbooks, video tutorials, practice questions, mock exams, online resources and extensive tutor support. QLTS School offers several SQE course packages for each stage of the assessment. The prices for SQE1 and SQE2 range from £1,590 to £2,390. The courses are flexible so students can commence preparation anytime, all around the year. Average preparation time is 5 to 6 months for SQE1 and 3 to 4 months for SQE2.

The College of Legal Practice, established by The College of Law Australasia, has also revealed the cost of its SQE preparation courses – the Developing Legal Professionals (DLP) programme. The DLP programme is made up of three core areas; Solicitors Legal Knowledge (SLK), Solicitors Legal Skills (SLS) and legal skills modules. The SLK course (SQE1 preparation) will cost £1,800, while the SLS Course (SQE2 preparation) will cost £2,300 – these are both available as a 12-week full-time course or a 20-week part-time course. Meanwhile, the legal skills modules range in price starting at £800, with a full LLM in Legal Practice available to aspiring solicitors from £6,900.

At undergraduate level, students can expect the option to undertake a modified law degree that combines SQE1 preparation with the traditional LLB.

This page will provide information on other providers' SQE course fees when this information is released. 

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 2021, don’t worry. There is a long transition period in which the old route will still be valid and this established pathway remains popular with both employers and students. 

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.