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The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

updated on 29 April 2022

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a new system of exams that was introduced in September 2021, which all prospective solicitors will have to pass to qualify.

From 2021, it is no longer 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 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 have developed new courses to prepare students for the SQE.

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 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. That said, many firms have revealed that they will maintain the two-year training contract structure as the qualifying work experience (QWE) aspect of the SQE.

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’ QWE.

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, 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;
  • legal system of England and Wales; and
  • constitutional and administrative Law and 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.

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;
  • advocacy/persuasive oral communication;
  • case and matter analysis – including planning negotiations;
  • legal research and written advice; 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 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 will only be in Cardiff, Manchester and London initially, with more locations being made available in the future.

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

Find out more about when and where SQE1 and 2 assessments are taking place in our regularly updated SQE Feature: ‘Everything we know about the SQE so far’.

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 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 experience 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 have already confirmed plans to continue offering 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.”

For more information on QWE, read this FAQ article

How much will the SQE cost?

The cost of taking the SQE is £3,980. This is broken down into:

  • SQE1 – £1,558; and
  • SQE2 – £2,422.

Unhelpfully, these figures do not 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 ‘SQE: everything we know so far’.

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 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, many of the SQE preparation courses on offer include aspects of the PGDL/GDL to ensure you are up to date.

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 ‘SQE: everything we know so far’. 

What are the transitional arrangements if I have 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 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.

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

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

To find out more about the transitional arrangements, read ‘SQE: everything we know so far’.

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.

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

Watch this space

All the details about the SQE will be comprehensively covered here on LawCareers.Net, via ‘SQE: everything we know so far’ and on our dedicated SQE hub as soon as we learn more.