In September 2021 the way that new trainee solicitors in England and Wales qualify will change with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). Learn more about this new assessment

Traditionally, to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales you had to:

  • Study a Qualifying Law Degree (LLB), before moving on to the Legal Practice Course (LPC), after which you'd complete a two-year period of recognised training, also known as a training contract.
  • Take any degree subject before following up with the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), then complete the LPC, followed by a training contract.

However, the qualification route will change for new entrants with the introduction of the SQE. Here we cover why the qualification route is changing, what to expect from the new assessment, how this will affect both current and future students and predicted costs.

To find out more see how to become a lawyer.

SQE at a glance

  • The SQE will ensure that all new solicitors are assessed to the same standard and will be split into two stages, testing legal knowledge and legal skills.
  • Transitional arrangements are in place so those who started a law degree, GDL or LPC before September 2021 will be able to continue qualification via the traditional route until 2032.
  • You'll still need to complete two years of qualifying legal work experience but this won't have to follow the traditional training contract format.
  • According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) the SQE will cost £3,980.

What is the SQE?

The SQE is a new centralised exam for solicitors, which will be introduced by the SRA in September 2021. So far the COVID-19 pandemic has had no affect on the SRA's plans for introducing the new assessment. 

The SQE will eventually replace the GDL and the LPC, but don't be misled - it's not a course but a series of examinations taken in two stages. If you started your law training before September 2021 the SRA expect a long period of transition.

Under the new system trainee solicitors must:

  • hold a degree or equivalent qualification (such as a degree apprenticeship) in any subject
  • pass stages 1 and 2 of the SQE
  • complete  two years qualifying work experience
  • meet the SRA's character and suitability requirements.

While the SRA has not specified that the degree level qualification must be in law, it will be helpful, in a practical sense, to have an education in law to pass the SQE assessments. However, SQE preparation course will be available for non-law graduates.

Following the SQE route, law graduates will qualify as a solicitor in five to six years, while it will take apprentices and non-law graduates five to seven years.

Why change the route to qualifying as a solicitor?

According to the SRA, the number of institutions currently involved in evaluating aspiring solicitors makes it difficult to ensure that all new solicitors are assessed to the same standard. The introduction of the SQE will make 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 and silencing the notion that one route to qualification is better than another.

The SRA also believes that the SQE will make the law profession more accessible by lowering the cost of study (in comparison with the GDL and LPC.)

What will the SQE involve?

The SQE will be split into two stages - SQE1 and SQE2, and will be assessed on a pass/fail basis. Assessments will be provided Kaplan and they will pair up with Pearson to utilise the latter's extensive network of test centres across England and Wales. There will be multiple sittings of the exam per year.

SQE1 should be taken after your degree. It tests functioning legal knowledge in two exams, each made up of 180 multiple-choice questions. The first exam covers:

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

The second part of SQE1 covers:

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

This first stage of examinations will be taken on a computer, in one assessment window - meaning they must all be taken together, within the same sitting. SQE1 must be passed in its entirety before attempting SQE2, but this is the only restriction on timings.

The two years qualifying work experience can be taken at any point throughout the SQE, but the SRA expect that the majority of graduates will pass SQE1 before embarking on their main period of work experience.

SQE2 tests practical legal skills. The assessment is taken over five days and is comprised of 16 practical exercises involving both written and oral tasks. Ethics and professional conduct are assessed throughout. SQE2 assesses the following skills:

  • client interview and attendance note/legal analysis
  • advocacy
  • case matter analysis
  • legal research
  • legal writing
  • legal drafting.

The practice contexts are:

  • criminal litigation
  • dispute resolution
  • property practice
  • wills and intestacy, probate administration and practice
  • business organisations rules and procedures.

As far as resitting the exams go (SQE1 and SQE2), you'll only be allowed three attempts at the assessments and these must be taken within six years.

What does qualifying look like for law graduates?

For law graduates, qualifying under the new system may look something like this:

  • study for a three year law degree (which includes SQE1 preparation)
  • take SQE stage 1
  • take SQE stage 2
  • complete a two year period of qualifying legal work experience
  • satisfy the SRA's suitability and character requirements
  • qualify as a solicitor.

How will the SQE affect those already studying a law degree or LPC?

Because of the long transition period, if you start your law degree or LPC before September 2021 you'll have 11 years (until 2032) to qualify under the traditional route. However, if you want to switch to the new SQE route you’ll be able to do so.

If you begin studying law after September 2021 the LPC will cease as a qualification route. You'll have to take the SQE and won't have the option of qualifying via the old route.

What about non-law graduates?

It's the same story for non-law graduates. If you begin to study for the GDL before September 2021 you'll be able to choose to continue down the traditional route of progressing onto the LPC and a training contract until 2032.

After September 2021, the GDL will cease as a qualification route and you'll need to take an SQE1 preparation course.

For non-law graduates, qualifying under the new system may look something like this:

  • study for a three-year non-law degree
  • take an SQE1 preparation course
  • sit the SQE stage 1
  • take SQE stage 2
  • complete a two year period of qualifying legal work experience
  • satisfy the SRA's suitability and character requirements
  • qualify as a solicitor.

SQE preparation courses

While not compulsory some institutions will incorporate SQE1 preparation into their law degrees or provide separate SQE1 preparatory courses for non-law graduates.

For example, BPP will run the Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) to prepare non-law graduates to pass SQE1. The course will take eight months to complete.

Other postgraduate SQE preparation courses have been developed by institutions such as the University of Law, QLTS School and BARBRI.

For more information on which institutions and organisations provide preparation courses, see the SRA's SQE training providers list.

Traditionally a training contract is the essential element to qualification, but it's also one of the main barriers, as placements are notoriously difficult to secure.

The SQE is designed to offer more flexibility when it comes to work experience, so aspiring solicitors won't necessarily need to do a training contract. However, it's likely that many firms will stick with the traditional training contract format.

Under the SQE route, you'll still need to do two years qualifying legal work experience, but this can be completed at a maximum of four organisations. The experience can be paid or unpaid and must provide you with the opportunity to develop the prescribed competencies for solicitors and be confirmed by an appropriate person, for example the Compliance Officer for Legal Practice. Formal training contracts, working as a paralegal, completing a placement as part of a sandwich degree or volunteering in a student law clinic or with Citizens Advice all count towards the SQE's work experience requirements.

For example, you could complete a two-year training contract at one City law firm or, alternatively, carry out six months of pro bono work at your university law clinic and then work as a paralegal for 18 months.

Each placement will need to be signed off by a solicitor at the organisation, or a solicitor outside the organisation who has direct experience of the candidates work.

How much will the SQE cost?

According to the SRA the total candidate fee for the SQE will be £3,980.

  • SQE1 will cost £1,558
  • SQE2 will cost £2,422

You'll pay the fees when you book your assessments.

These figures don't include any additional training costs such as SQE preparation courses. If institutions incorporate SQE preparation into their law degrees there will be no additional charge, however if you choose to take preparation courses separately bear in mind that costs could be considerably higher.

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