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2021 is bringing big changes to the traditional Law system. From September, the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) will replace the long-running Legal Practice Course (LPC), creating a more consistent and straightforward way of becoming a qualified Solicitor. If you’re confused about this new system, we’ve got you covered in this in-depth article which will explain what the SQE Law exam is, how the system has changed, what you can expect and more.
What is the SQE?
The SQE stands for Solicitors Qualifying Exam and, from September 2021, it will become the new route into a career as a qualified Solicitor. The SQE exam is split into two parts and candidates must complete two years of relevant work experience to qualify - more on this later!
How has the Law qualification system changed?
Previously, you could become a qualified Solicitor through the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which requires one of these two things:
- A Law degree (LLB) and two years of work experience, also known as a training contract. Learn more about training contacts.
- A complete degree subject accredited by the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL)/Law Conversion Course and a training contract. A GDL is a great way to get up to speed with those who took an undergraduate degree in Law.
The LPC often followed an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, and it would often make the connection between academic studies and practical experience in a Law firm. But now, the SQE will replace these traditional routes and become a more accessible and consistent path for potential Solicitors. The SQE will ensure high standards are a priority, as having a flat test makes it easier to determine set pass and grade limits.
SRA Chief Executive, Paul Philip, explained: “We all need to be able to trust that those who enter the profession are fit to practise. The current system cannot provide that confidence. The new SQE will provide assurance that all those who qualify, regardless of pathway or background, meet the consistent high standards we set on behalf of the public.”
If you currently hold an LPC or you’re set to start one soon, fear not! The last LPC qualifications will start from January 2022 and will be valid until 2032 - this means you’ll still be able to apply for trainee Solicitor roles after the SQE comes in.
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How do I become qualified with the SQE Law?
To qualify as a Solicitor through the SQE process, you must have:
- A university degree or equivalent - Law or non-Law subject
- Pass stages 1 and 2 of the SQE
- Pass the character and suitability assessment through the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)
- Hold two years of legal work experience - you can find out what qualifies as legal work experience below.
Although anyone with a Law or non-Law degree can have a shot at the SQE, without any legal training or similar course knowledge, it may be difficult to pass - but preparation courses will be available for non-Law students! If you’re a Law graduate, taking the SQE will allow you to become a qualified Solicitor in 5-6 years, whereas it would take non-Law and apprentices roughly 5-7 years.
Several Law firms have vocalised their excitement for a change in the system. Reed Smith’s Adam Curphey explained that this new practical-focused approach aims to “contextualise learning and remedy some of the key problems facing legal education right now”.
Clyde & Co have noted "in the context of the incoming SQE and the changing legal landscape, we have been taking some time to conduct an internal project to explore our approach to the SQE and our philosophy regarding our Early Careers populations and our investment in these populations. The SQE provides a real opportunity for us to reimagine and reframe how training and development are delivered and provide more innovative and tailored training programmes to suit our business. We are continuing to work through our approach to the SQE, ensuring that we continue to provide a high-quality training programme to support our future talent and the firms broader diversity and inclusion agenda."
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What does the SQE consist of?
Unlike the LCC or GDL that is made up of set course materials, assessments and exams, the SQE is simply a series of exams split into two parts.
Stage one, also known as SQE1, is focused on legal research, writing and knowledge, and is often taken before legal work experience is undertaken. This stage aims to test your knowledge of Law in a practical sense, particularly how you can apply this knowledge to real-life situations.
SQE1 has two multiple-choice exams that must be passed. The first exam focuses on:
- Dispute regulation
- Business Law and practice
- Constitutional and Administrative Law
- England and Wales legal system
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The second exam looks at:
- Land Law
- Criminal Law and practice
- Property practice
- Wills and administration of estates
Stage two, known as SQE2, covers your core legal skills through a series of oral and written assessments. This will be focused on the everyday skills needed to become a Solicitor, such as interviewing, writing up contracts, legal drafting and more. The SQE2 is made up of 16 practical assessments in total - four oral skills assessments and 12 written. These are taken by all students over several days.
The main skills assessed in SQE2 include:
- Criminal practice
- Dispute resolution
- Business practice
- Wills and administration of estates
It may not be necessary to take a preparation course for the SQE2, but this depends on your practical experience and knowledge of the areas above.
What counts as legal work experience to qualify?
To complete the SQE successfully, you need to have two years’ worth of work experience under your belt. You don’t need to find one placement for the whole two years; you can complete the time through a maximum of four separate placements. This is a great way to gain valuable skills and experience while learning what it’s like to work in a real law environment.
Training contracts at the big law firms are hard to come by but don’t worry, there are other ways to gain some practical experience that will qualify.
Examples of legal work experience:
- Voluntary work at a Law firm
- Working as a Paralegal or shadowing a similar role
- Working at a Law clinic - this could be at university
- Training contract
- Completing a placement - for example as a sandwich degree
Your work experience can be taken before, after or during the completion of the SQE. But, the more practical skills and knowledge you have, the easier the examination will be.
How can I fund the SQE?
The cost to fund the SQE Law exam for graduates is between £3,000 and £4,000, which is much cheaper than the traditional LPC qualification that costs roughly £12,000 - £17,000. According to the SRA, SQE1 will cost £1,500 and SQE2 will cost £2,450. Although the SQE cannot be paid for with a student loan, there are still ways to find funding.
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive of the SRA, said: “In the current system, many people are put off by the high up-front costs of the Legal Practice Course - up to almost £17,000 - with no guarantee of a training contract. The SQE should give people more training options and more affordable ways to qualify, including earn-as-you-learn routes such as apprenticeships.”
This being said, if you’re taking a Solicitor apprenticeship, most employers will pay for your SQE qualification because it will become part of your apprenticeship. It also means they’re more likely to keep you on when your apprenticeship comes to an end!
Some Law firms, such as Deloitte, are offering sponsorships or three-year training contracts so graduates can earn straight away, undertake the work experience and sit their SQE exams all in one go. But, for those not with a Law firm or with a training contract in the bag, it’s worth looking out for scholarships and bursaries that may come available when the rollout of SQE becomes mainstream.
Law firm Linklaters is going the extra mile by offering to support and fund SQE preparation courses for refugee lawyers. Linklater’s Global Corporate Responsibility Manager, Joanna Keefe said: “We are pleased to be working with Breaking Barriers and BARBRI to increase access to the legal profession for individuals who might otherwise face financial barriers to undertake the SQE prep course.”
You could even work a part-time job to fund the SQE qualification. It will likely be an option to study and pay on a part-time basis over a few years, instead of one whole academic year and paying a lump sum upfront.
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How do I prepare for the SQE?
Several postgraduate preparation courses are being created to help students become fully prepared to pass the SQE, reducing the risk of having to retake. Various providers such as The University of Law, QLTS and BPP all offer SQE1 and SQE2 preparation courses on a full and part-time basis - fees apply!
Your preparation for the SQE should be taken into careful consideration, as it can take Law graduates between 9-12 months and 15-20 hours per week of studying to be fully prepared for both stages of the SQE. While you don’t have to take a preparation course, it’s recommended so you’re ready and have the best chance at passing.
In the future, it may be possible to prepare for the SQE independently with the correct resources available. However, at this early stage, we would recommend sticking to a provider, as they have the best resources and support to offer for your SQE journey.
Each training provider will have pros and cons, but here are four things to think about when looking for SQE preparation courses:
- The cost - each provider will offer a different price, but it’s important to understand what you’ll be receiving and how it will help you pass.
- Find out what course materials they offer - you need to know how they’re going to prepare you and whether it’s the right way for you to learn. Is it through textbooks, videos, practise papers etc?
- Experience the provider has - for example, the QLTS School has many years of experience preparing candidates for similar LPC exams, this means you’ll stand a good chance of passing with their help.
- Quality - it’s always good to hear a second opinion from someone who has done it, right? Although the SQE is new and upcoming, the providers offering the preparation courses are not. Try to talk to those in Law who have gone through a similar process with a provider and gauge their opinion.
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