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The Solicitors Qualifying Exam

updated on 17 February 2021

The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a new system of exams that will be introduced in 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, also called QLE which means 'qualifying legal experience').

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' QLE 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?

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 lawyers 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?

The cost of taking the SQE will be between £3,000 - £4,500. This is broken down into:

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

Unhelpfully, these figures do not include the 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 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.

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.