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

Under the current system, to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales you must either:

  • Study a Qualifying Law Degree (LLB), before moving on to the Legal Practice Course (LPC), after which you'll 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.

To find out more see how to become a lawyer.

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

SQE at a glance

  • Provided by Kaplan and set to be introduced in the autumn of 2021 the SQE will change the way solicitors in England and Wales qualify.
  • It 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.
  • Those who start 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.
  • The SRA estimates that the SQE will cost between £3,000 and £4,500.

Be aware that decisions about the SQE are still being made. The SRA will make further announcements, so for the most up-to-date information check its website. Legal employers are also busy working through how they will accommodate the SQE, so check with companies of interest for any changes that might affect you.

What is the SQE?

The SQE is a new centralised exam for solicitors, set to be introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (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 aspiring 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 a substantial period of 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. It's also something that many employers expect.

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 SRA's proposals show that the SQE will be split into two stages; SQE1 and SQE2, and will be assessed on a pass/fail basis. Kaplan have been confirmed as the assessment provider and they will pair up with Pearson to utilise the latter's extensive network of test centres across England and Wales. There will be at least two sittings per year, likely around June and December.

SQE1 should be taken after your degree and includes one practical legal skills exam on legal research and writing, and six functioning legal knowledge exams:

  • Principles of Professional Conduct, Public and Administrative law and the Legal Systems of England and Wales
  • Dispute Resolution in Contract or Tort
  • Property Law and Practice
  • Commercial and Corporate Law and Practice
  • Will and Administration of Estates and Trusts
  • Criminal Law and Practice.

It is likely that SQE1 assessments will be a mixture of multiple-choice, research and writing questions. 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.

It is expected that some institutions will incorporate SQE1 preparation into their law programmes or provide separate SQE1 preparatory courses for non-law graduates. For example, BPP has announced the first law conversion course to prepare non-law graduates to pass SQE1. The Postgraduate Diploma in Law (PGDL) will take eight months to complete. Contact institutions to check whether this is something they plan to provide before applying for courses.

SQE2 is made up of five practical legal skills assessments, which must be completed across two different practice contexts, making ten examinations overall. It assesses the following key skills:

  • client interviewing
  • advocacy
  • case matter analysis
  • legal research and written advice
  • legal drafting.

The practice contexts are:

  • Criminal Practice
  • Dispute Resolution
  • Property
  • Wills and Administration of Estates and Trusts
  • Commercial and Corporate Practice.

You can sit all ten exams at once or in two groups of five. Some SQE2 exams will be taken on a computer, while others will take the form of mock interviews and role plays.

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.

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.

Under the current system a formal training contract is an 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 City 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.

How much will the SQE cost?

Recent predictions from the SRA estimate that the SQE will cost between £3,000 and £4,500.

A breakdown of the costs reveal that SQE1, testing legal knowledge through a series of computer-based assessments, will cost between £1,100 and £1,650, while fees for SQE2, which tests practical legal skills, will fall between £1,900 and £2,850.

However, the SRA have stressed that these figures are currently an estimate and could be subject to change. These figures also don't include any additional training such as SQE preparation courses. If institutions incorporate SQE preparation into their law degrees there will be no additional charge, however if you have to take preparation courses separately bear in mind that costs could be considerably higher.

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