As part of Prospects Future You webinar series Shane Robson, academic support officer at the Law Training Centre, answers questions on the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)
Introduced on 1 September 2021 the SQE is a new centralised exam that all aspiring solicitors will need to take to qualify. During the webinar Shane and Ben Burns, policy associate at the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), explained why the route to qualifying has changed, what the SQE will involve, what counts towards qualifying work experience (QWE) and how much the SQE will cost.
We received so many questions from those attending that there wasn't time for Shane or Ben to answer them all. However, Shane has taken the time to respond to some of the most frequent enquiries and we've compiled the answers here.
Who is eligible for the SQE?
The SQE is open to anyone who has a university degree or equivalent in any subject. The subject does not have to be law related, although learners may find this useful in preparation for the SQE. However, separate preparation courses have been designed with this is mind.
The SQE will also replace the qualified lawyers transfer scheme (QLTS), serving foreign qualified lawyers, from all jurisdictions - not just those recognised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The SQE provides a path to the solicitor title through the same exam taken by domestic candidates.
Can you break down what the transitional arrangements mean for those who have already started a law degree, GDL or LPC?
The transitional route, as explained by the SRA, has given learners as much choice as possible when deciding on a pathway to becoming a solicitor in England and Wales. Learners can continue to qualify through the existing routes or decide to do the SQE.
Learners who wish to continue with their existing routes can do so however, the transition only applies to those who, before 1 September 2021, have completed, started, accepted an offer of a place or paid a non-refundable deposit on the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or a period of recognised training (also known as a training contract). Anyone who falls within this group will have until 31 December 2032 to qualify as a solicitor under the existing routes, as long as courses still remain available.
Under the SQE are there any exemptions for those that have already studied the GDL, LPC, BPTC or an LLM?
Only qualified lawyers can apply for exemptions to parts of the SQE assessment. It is important to note that the SQE will not be limited to a specific subject area; the exams are to test your competency a solicitor. They are designed for aspiring solicitors so it wouldn't be beneficial, for example, to sit the SQE if you want to be a barrister or study law in an academic rather than a practical context.
Those who have completed the LPC can ask the SRA to recognise QWE and the SQE2 as equivalent to a period of recognised training of two years. This is in replacement of the traditional training contract and professional skills course. Also, a person who is already a chartered legal executive has the option of the legal executive equivalent route (provided it falls within transitional period as per question two above) until 31st December 2032.
If someone is already doing the traditional route to qualification can they switch to the new SQE route?
Yes. The advice would be to consider your options at this stage very carefully. Take note of any cost implications and any offers you currently have available to you. It would be beneficial to check the SRA website for updates and the tools available to assist your choices.
For those who are studying their law degree at present, you fall in the transitional period and will have both options available to you (subject to the availability of the LPC).
Can you give examples of what now counts as qualifying legal work experience (QWE)?
It is important to note that the new pathway to becoming a solicitor allows the SRA to test your competencies as a solicitor rather than law firms, so there is greater flexibility in the approach to QWE.
Firstly, the work undertaken must be work providing legal services, this can be in a law firm or other organisation. The work can be part of a law clinic, training contract or as a paralegal. The work does not have to be paid but you must be given an opportunity to develop the core skills and competencies needed to be a solicitor. You can now gain QWE in up to four different organisations. This means it's a great time to reach out to law firms, charities and organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau to get some work experience.
Will law firms continue to provide two-year training contracts?
It is anticipated that many firms will still offer training contracts in the same way - a two-year training contract fulfills the QWE requirements in one go. Due to the fact that the flexibility surrounding QWE is new to the profession, I would predict some schemes coming out in the very near future. Get ahead and start speaking to firms now about any opportunities.
As training contracts are no longer essential are vacation schemes necessary?
Vacation schemes have always been a useful tool for those who want to get a closer insight into a firm; they help sharpen your skills and legal knowledge. Vacation schemes can also be a springboard for further work that can assist with your QWE. Learners who take part in a vacation scheme will also get some insight into whether the career is right for them. All opportunities available to you are doors opening and in this industry can be of great value.
What is an SQE preparation course and who should take one?
To complete the SQE you do not need to study any course other than a university degree or equivalent in any subject. However, it would not be advisable to take the SQE without any preparation.
SQE preparation courses have been designed to bridge the gap between the new SQE exams, more general law degrees and unrelated degrees entirely. The exams not only test your theoretical knowledge but your functioning legal knowledge, which includes elements of practice and some areas of law you might not have studied prior to taking the SQE.
For many people the style of exams will be new and preparation courses can offer mock examinations to help you become more comfortable in sitting the real exams. If in doubt, you should try the sample mock exam set by the SRA. It is worth noting that the level of knowledge required for the SQE is that of a newly qualified lawyer on day one, in comparison the standard for the LPC is a trainee on day one.
Consider the offering of each provider before making a decision, as different providers offer different elements to their courses.
Are SQE exams and preparation courses covered by Student Finance?
The simple answer is no, preparation courses and the exams themselves need to be funded by the individual taking them. It should be noted that where the exams are concerned the SRA requires payment to be made in full at the time of booking them.
Some institutions offer combined courses that can be funded through Student Finance, such as a combined Masters and SQE preparation course. However, it is worth weighing up your options and considering the potential loan amount when doing this.
Law Training Centre Kent, for example, offers flexible payment plans and flexible courses allowing you the options to earn while you learn.
Will law firms sponsor those studying SQE preparation courses or those taking the exams?
Some firms already are, and it is anticipated that they will continue to do so in the same way that some employers fund the LPC. This would be something you would have to discuss with individual firms. There would, of course, be benefits to firms offering to sponsor the costs of courses. Some firms and professional bodies may also offer bursaries to assist with costs.
Are there any plans to change the solicitor qualification route in Scotland?
The position in Scotland and the qualifying Scots degrees are unaffected by the changes.
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