The way that solicitors qualify in England and Wales is set to change with the introduction of a new 'super exam' known as the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)

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 this up with the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). You’ll then move on to the LPC, followed by a training contract.

To find out more see how to become a lawyer.

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

SQE at a glance

  • New 'super exam' to be introduced in 2020 will change the way solicitors in England and Wales qualify.
  • The exam ensures that all new solicitors are assessed to the same standard and will be split into two stages testing legal knowledge and legal skills.
  • You'll still need to complete two years of qualifying legal work experience but this won't necessarily have to follow the traditional training contract format.
  • The SQE will cost less than the GDL and LPC.
  • Those who start a law degree, GDL or LPC before August 2020 will be able to continue qualification via the traditional route.

What is the SQE?

The SQE is a new centralised examination for solicitors, set to be introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) no earlier than September 2020. This date could be pushed back, but for now the SRA are aiming for a 2020 launch.

The new 'super exam' represents a complete overhaul of the way in which students qualify as solicitors and will eventually replace law conversion courses, such as the GDL, and the LPC.

Certain details about the SQE are yet to be finalised and confirmed but 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.

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.

SQE1 should be taken after your degree, but before your period of work-based experience and includes one practical legal skills exam on legal research and writing, and six functioning legal knowledge exams as follows:

  • 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.

SQE2 is made up of five practical legal skills assessments, which must be completed across two different practice contexts, making ten examinations overall. The practice contexts are:

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

This second stage of the SQE is designed to be taken after you've completed a period of work-based experience.

As of yet there is no information on how potential solicitors will prepare for the exam, but it is expected that institutions will incorporate SQE stage 1 preparation into their law programmes or provide separate SQE stage 1 preparatory courses for non-law graduates.

An example of the new approach to qualifying as a solicitor may look something like this for law undergraduates:

  • study for a three year law degree (which includes SQE1 preparation)
  • take SQE stage 1
  • complete a period of qualifying legal work experience
  • take SQE stage 2
  • 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?

If you start your law degree or LPC before August 2020 the introduction of the SQE shouldn't really affect you at all if you don't want it to.

The SRA is expecting a long period of transition; because of this if you start your law training before August 2020 you'll be able to choose whether to qualify via the traditional route or via the new SQE route.

However, if you start your law degree, LPC or apprenticeship after August 2020 the LPC will no longer exist, so you will have to take the SQE and will not have the option of qualifying via the old route.

What about non-law graduates?

It's pretty much the same story for non-law graduates. If you plan to study for the GDL before August 2020 you'll be able to choose to continue down the traditional route of progressing onto the LPC and a training contract. After August 2020 the GDL will no longer exist and instead you'll need to take an SQE stage 1 preparation course (these currently don't exist but it’s likely that universities will start providing them to get non-law graduates up to speed.)

An example of the new approach to qualifying as a solicitor may look something like this for non-law graduates:

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

What about training contracts?

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 new qualification route is designed to offer more flexibility when it comes to work experience, so aspiring solicitors won't necessarily need to do a training contract as we know it, although it's likely that City firms will stick with the traditional training contract format.

Taking the SQE route, you will still need to do two years qualifying legal work experience but this can be completed at a maximum of four organisations. Formal training contracts, working as a paralegal, completing a placement as part of a sandwich degree or volunteering in a student law clinic all count, and will satisfy 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?

Exact fees are not yet known, as the SRA is still consulting on a number of points regarding the SQE. What we do know is that sitting the new exam will be cheaper than the LPC and traditional law conversion courses, such as the GDL. We also know that the second stage of the SQE will be more expensive than the first.

The reduction in cost is designed to widen access to the profession and hopefully encourage those previously put off a career in law by high course fees, to consider training as a solicitor.

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