The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a new system of exams that were introduced in September 2021, which all prospective solicitors have to pass to qualify in order to qualify as an England & Wales solicitor.
Why was the existing system replaced?
Prior to the SQE, the only qualification method was through the traditional path whereby every law student had to complete two years of continuous recognised training at an SRA regulated institution, also known as a ‘training contract’. Since training contracts required a significant commitment from the firms as well, there were a limited number of training contracts offered by firms and the criteria for securing one was extremely high thereby making this an inaccessible route for many law students.
Further, according to the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA), the number of institutions involved in evaluating aspiring solicitors made it difficult to ensure that all new solicitors were assessed to the same standard. The introduction of the SQE makes sure that all trainee solicitors, no matter which route they take (be that a law degree, non-law degree or law apprenticeship) sit the same qualifying exam, ensuring consistency and high standards across the board whilst also increasing access to the legal profession.
How can you qualify as a solicitor under the SQE?
Traditionally, to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales you had to either study a Qualifying Law Degree (LLB), before moving on to the Legal Practice Course (LPC), after which you had completed the training contract or if you had studied any other degree subject apart from the law at University, you had to do a conversion course also known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), then complete the LPC, followed by a training contract.
However, under the new route, you will not be required to complete a qualifying law degree or a conversion course. To qualify as a solicitor through the SQE route, you will only need to have a university degree or equivalent in any subject (law or non-law), successfully pass a set of two assessments, complete two years of qualifying legal work experience and meet the ‘character and suitability requirements of the SRA.
What is the structure of the assessments?
The SQE assessments are split into two stages – SQE1 and SQE2.
The first stage, SQE1, covers “functioning legal knowledge” (FLK). The tests are designed to not just test the candidate’s knowledge of the law, but also how they would apply their legal knowledge, research and writing skills to real-life scenarios across different practice areas. SQE1 is made up of two exams of 306 minutes each including a 1-hour break (i.e. a total of 6 hours), each containing 180 multiple-choice questions (MCQs).
The two SQE1 assessments comprise of the following subject areas:
- Business Law and Practice; Dispute Resolution; Contract; Tort; Legal System of England and Wales; Constitutional and Administrative Law and EU Law and Legal Services (FLK 1).
- Property Practice; Wills and the Administration of Estates; Solicitors Accounts; Land Law; Trusts; Criminal Law and Practice (FLK 2).
The second stage, SQE2, is made up of 16 practical exercises (four oral skills assessments and 12 written skills assessments). A key difference between SQE2 and the LPC is that the SQE tests candidates according to the level of a newly qualified solicitor or a ‘day one solicitor’, not a trainee solicitor – it tests whether the candidate’s practical skills are at the standard required of a newly qualified solicitor.
The six key skills assessed by way of SQE2 are:
- client interview and attendance note/legal analysis
- case and matter analysis
- legal research
- legal writing and
- legal drafting.
These skills are assessed across five practice areas:
- Criminal Litigation (including advising clients at the police station)
- Dispute Resolution
- Property Practice
- Wills and Intestacy, Probate Administration and Practice
- Business organisations, rules and procedures (including money laundering and financial services).
Where and when can the SQE assessments be taken?
SQE1 and SQE2 written assessments can be taken at Pearson VUE test centres in the UK and internationally. However, due to differences in time zones, an assessment may not be offered at some international locations. SQE2 oral assessments are currently only administered in Cardiff, Manchester and London but more locations may be available to choose from in the future.
The first SQE1 exams – SQE1 FLK1 and FLK2 exams took place in November 2021. The next SQE1 FLK1 and FLK2 assessments are scheduled to take place on 21 July 2022 and 25 July 2022 respectively.
Whereas, the first SQE2 written assessment will take place between 11 to 13 April 2022, and the first and second sittings for the SQE2 oral assessment have been scheduled to take place between 19 to 20 April 2022 and 21 to 22 April 2022 – candidates can choose the date that suits them at the time of booking, depending on availability. The second assessment window for SQE2 has also been confirmed, with the written and oral assessments scheduled for November and October 2022, respectively.
How can you prepare for the SQE assessments?
An integral question for most candidates would be how to effectively prepare for these examinations and what courses if required are to be opted for. However, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question as each candidate’s background, level of foundational legal knowledge and study preference may differ.
It is necessary to note that it is not required to complete a preparation course to take the SQE. However, candidates may choose to take one to give themselves the best chance of successfully passing the SQE particularly if they have not studied for a law degree previously. A range of postgraduate SQE1 and SQE2 preparation courses have been developed by providers such as BARBRI, BPP, ULaw, QLTS School, Nottingham Law School and the College of Legal Practice with both full-time and part-time study options. For those candidates who may wish to self-study, some websites and institutions, also offer their SQE material separately from the preparatory course. In addition, websites like the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority and QLTS also provide model SQE exam questions for candidates to revise and practice. Some universities may also incorporate the SQE1 preparation into their undergraduate law degree programmes so for those students who are yet to choose their undergraduate university courses, this is definitely something to look out for.
What is Qualifying Work Experience (QWE)?
To qualify as a solicitor, all candidates must complete two years’ full-time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience. It can be undertaken before, during and/or after completing SQE1 and SQE2.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 thereby making it easier to secure and more flexible in comparison to a training contract.
Further unlike training contracts whereby you are required to experience both contentious and non-contentious work and have to do complete at least four different seats, for the QWE, there is no requirement on your employer to give you that variety of experience and you could simply spend two years in one particular department. That being said, a lot of firms may like their QWE to be highly reflective of the training contract and may offer that same variety nonetheless.
How is QWE confirmed?
Each QWE 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. A barrister cannot confirm QWE unless they are also qualified as a solicitor.
Which route should I opt for?
If you have started your law degree or LPC before September 2021 you have the option to qualify under the traditional route for another 11 years (until 2032). However, if you began studying law after September 2021, you are required to undertake the SQE and will not have the option of qualifying via the old route.
For those who are in the midst of their legal journey and have the option of qualifying through either route, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of both the SQE and the LPC. With the LPC, one of the obvious advantages is that it is a tried and tested route, the candidates and the law firms both know about the qualifying law degree, the conversion course, the training contract and are therefore very familiar with the Legal Practice Course route. The firms also know what they’re getting with that since they know that the course is thorough, there is an opportunity to choose electives and there are skill modules as well within the course which are also rigorously assessed. Whereas, the SQE is new to everyone. And therefore there is an element of uncertainty to it.
On the other hand, as discussed, the SQE is significantly more flexible in terms of accessing the profession as there are more opportunities for candidates to gain the QWE and therefore more opportunities to qualify. Further, the total cost of the SQE exams is approximately £3,980 with preparatory courses and self-study options being optional whereas the LPC can cost anywhere from £11,000 – £18,000 depending on where you study.
Choosing to follow either route is an individual decision, nevertheless, each candidate is advised to thoroughly evaluate their personal circumstances, existing legal knowledge, style of learning, financial position and their future career goals in terms of the kind of roles and law firms they wish to work at, before making this decision.
Nirali graduated with a Distinction upon studying the full-time Legal Practice Course (LPC) at BPP University. She is currently working as an in-house Legal Advisor for a company in the Middle East.
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