Future You podcast transcript

Qualifying as a solicitor: Learn all about the SQE | with University of Law

March, 2024

We take an in-depth look at the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) with Dr Jill Howell-Williams from the University of Law. She offers advice and answers the most frequently asked questions


In order of first appearance:

  • Emily Slade - podcast producer and host, Prospects
  • Dr Jill Howell-Williams - national programme director, SQE, The University of Law


Emily Slade: Hello and welcome to Future You the podcast brought to you by graduate careers experts Prospects. I'm your host Emily Slade and this episode is for all budding solicitors out there. We take an in depth look at the solicitors qualifying examination, what it is, how it works, how much it's going to cost, and much more.

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: Hi, my name is Dr Jill Howell-Williams. I'm the National Program Director for the Solicitors Qualifying Examination, which are shortened to SQE because it is a bit of a mouthful. So what that means is I'm responsible for the design and delivery of the SQE Preparation Programs at the University of Law. And these are programs which have been created to support students to qualify under the new SQE regime. Sort of by way of a bit of background, I started my career in law as a dual qualified barrister and solicitor practicing corporate law at a large city law firm. But after a number of years in practice, I decided to fulfill a lifelong ambition to become involved in education by joining the College of Law, as it was then called now the University of Law as a tutor in business law and mergers and acquisitions. And I have taught across almost every law program at the University including vocational law and master's programs. I became the campus dean of Margate in 2016. SQE role in 2020. So as well as being very involved in this SQE, I'm also very interested in the adoption of technology both in education and in the legal profession itself. And I launched the more gate legal tech and innovation hub. And when I joined the chair, the university's law Technology and Research Academy which we call Ultra.

Emily Slade: Are you able to introduce the SQE route and sort of tell us a bit about who it's aimed up?

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: Yeah, of course. So there's a lot of background to the SQE. It's been a long time in the making, but it is finally here. And it was introduced by the solicitors Regulation Authority, and it was devised as a centralised assessment for all would be solicitors who wish to qualify. In England and Wales it was brought in to replace the previous route to qualification through something that was called the legal practice course or the LPC which some of those listening to this podcast will be familiar with. Under the new SQE route, all candidates must split and pass the same centralised assessments which are delivered by the SRA through its assessment provider, which is a law school called Kaplan and principle reasons for the introduction of the SQE by the solicitors Regulation Authority, were to create a level playing field by having these centralised assessments. So previously, all of the different law schools would set the assessments on their legal practice courses, and also a great driver behind the change was to provide greater access to the profession by creating a route which many considered to be more flexible than the previous one. Now, there's no prescribed training course for these new SQE assessments, although obviously, all the law schools and training providers like the University of Law, offer SQE preparation courses, to get students ready for the assessments. And I must say, I think it's a myth that I would like to clear up on this podcast is that I think any student that considers sitting the SQE assessments without some form of preparation is very brave. Indeed, they are tough assessments. And the SRA, I think would be the first to admit that a proper preparation course would be required for the vast majority of students sitting SQE1 and SQE2. So what what's the SQE actually consist of in terms of these assessments that I've been referring to? So it consists of two new assessments and they're known as SQE1 and SQE2. So put simply, the SQE1 assessments will test on something called functioning legal knowledge, and I'll come back and explain what that means in a moment. And the SQE2 assessments will put simply test students legal skills, so what do they all look like? So the SQE1 assessments are a pretty chunky set of assessments. They consist of 360 specialist multiple choice questions covering a body of law known as functioning legal knowledge. Now functioning legal knowledge is a mixture of what we call academic law knowledge. So those are the foundation subjects that traditionally would be studied on a law degree or in a conversion course and include subjects like crime, contract, tort equity, land law, and so on and so forth. And it also includes vocational subject areas in practice areas like business law, dispute resolution, property practice wills, legal services, criminal practice solicitors accounts and ethics. So those vocational subject areas that you would need to know in order to practice as a solicitor, and those are traditionally not taught on undergraduate law degrees or on conversion courses, because those degrees are getting students ready for either side of the profession. So either for the bar or for solicitors, and those vocational subjects are really aimed at just the solicitors side. So function legal knowledge is defined by the SRA as being the application of knowledge of the law to demonstrate the competences required to the level of a newly qualified solicitor in England and Wales. And I think again, that's a really important point, the level at which you are being assessed in the SQE regime is the level of a newly qualified solicitor and this differentiates it from the previous LPC where the level at which you were being assessed was a day one trainee, so it is a tougher set of assessments and the former LPC because of the level that is required. So looking at SQE1 and giving you a little bit more detail about what this involves, it's divided into two separate papers of 180 questions each and those papers are sat on different days. In fact, in different weeks, typically SQE1 takes or sat over a two week period. So the questions, although they're multiple choice questions are a specialised sort of multiple choice question called single best answer questions which are frequently adopted by professional qualifications. And what students have to do is they have to pick one answer from five different choices or options. And I suppose the difference between them and a typical MCQ is that more than one option, on the face of it could be technically correct. And the skill in answering NSBE cue or single best answer question well, is being able to pick the option that is the most correct or the best answer. And that involves the skill of understanding the client's requirements and applying the law to it. And indeed, you may come across a single best answer question that has five technically correct options. And you can see that it's a real degree of skill required by students in working out which of those five options is the best one. So that's the SQE1 assessments in an in a nutshell, each paper typically takes a student about five and a half hours to complete. So you can see it's a chunky assessment on each day, you do get a break in the middle of the of the day, and they are sat in Pearson VUE test center. So lots of people listening to this podcast will probably be familiar from those test centers if anyone's taken their driving knowledge test. And there are lots of test centres dotted all over the country. And students will book the assessments in the one that's most convenient to them. The SQE2 which as I said a moment ago, assesses students legal skills, is again quite a sizable set of assessments and involves 16 different tasks, or assessments in the following legal skills. So they are advocacy, interviewing and attendance, note taking, case and meta analysis, legal writing, legal drafting, and legal research. Now all of those skills are assessed a number of different times. And they are based in scenarios that come from the functioning legal knowledge that I referred to a moment ago and are very much based in those vocational contexts from SQE1, so the oral skills, there are two days worth of oral skills assessments in interviewing and advocacy. And those are live and take place in front of an assessor at four different locations across the UK, the written skills, just like SQE1 are completed as computer based assessments and all of the assessments are under very strictly timed conditions. That's a very important point to take on board and something that again, we prepare our students for at the University of Law. And I think you can see from that summary of what those assessments involve, they're very different from the traditional types of assessments that many of the people listening to this podcast will have set to date, whether it be a levels or their undergraduate degrees, which will typically involve problem solving questions, maybe some knowledge based multiple choice assessments. So there is definitely the scope here to really kind of understand the assessment regime and to adapt and get the best assessment technique possible. And that's what we hope we do at the University of Law in our preparation course. says. So just to kind of summarise, what does the SQE mean, in terms of how do you qualify in becoming a solicitor in England and Wales, under the new regime, students need to pass both sets of those assessments. So that's SQE1 and SQE2 and there is a specific order there, you have to pass SQE1 Before you're allowed to go on and sit SQE2 you also need to have a degree, but it doesn't now need to be a qualifying law degree, it can be a degree in any subject, students have to undertake two years of qualifying work experience. And again, there's a little bit more flexibility here than typically there was under a training contract, in that you can do that qualifying work experience with up to four employers, and you can do it at different points in your journey to qualify. So you may be able to do some qualifying work experience while you're an undergraduate if you do relevant work experience while you're studying. And then finally, the fourth requirement is to meet the SRS character and suitability requirements, which was always the case under the old regime. And so what's going to happen is the SQE will eventually replace the old LPC and training contract in its entirety, and the LPC is already declining in numbers and will be phased out over the next 10 years, although I think it will go probably quite a lot quicker than that.

Emily Slade: So you did mention briefly, you would need a degree do you need to have studied law at undergraduate level? And will you need a conversion course?

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: It's a really good question. And it's probably one of the questions that we get most frequently asked at the University of Law. So the technical answer is no, you don't need a law degree now to qualify as a solicitor under the SQE regime. And all you need is a degree but I think the lack of a law degree has led to a lot of confusion and misconceptions in the student body. And the reason for that is that whilst technically you don't need a law degree, or, or indeed a conversion course, to qualify as half of the content of the SQE syllabus, the functioning legal knowledge I was speaking about earlier, is made up of academic law, which is traditionally studied on either a law degree or conversion course, we believe very firmly that some form of academic law training will be essential, whether that's a law degree, or a law conversion course. So what that means is, if you're on a law degree already, that's great. And that will be excellent preparation for the SQE regime. And my top tip would be, make sure that you retain all of the materials and notes that you have created over the course of your degree, because you will need to bring those forwards into the SQE regime. If you don't want to or you're not studying law as your first degree, we certainly would recommend a law conversion course of one sort of another so that you can cover these really important elements of the SQE syllabus, the conversion courses that we offer at the University of Law, are very popular. And I think it's important to understand the relevance of having a law degree or a conversion course. In terms of your employability opportunities. I do a lot of work with the law firms in pulling together my SQE programs. And certainly from my interactions with those firms and other legal employers over the last few years, the vast majority of firms recognise this really important stage of training, whether it's a law degree or a non law degree, and many firms continue to fund students who've got a non law degree to do a conversion course. And I would say, for anybody not doing the law degree, students with non law degrees do continue to be a very popular source of talent for legal employ. So don't worry if you haven't got a law degree, but for those who have got a law degree, that's great. You should have the academic law that you need for part of the SQE syllabus already under your belt but just make sure that you keep everything safely and bring it forwards.

Emily Slade: We're going to look a bit now into some frequently asked questions. We've already briefly touched on it. The LPC is that still an option and people still eligible to sit it.

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: This is very much going to depend on your own individual profile. So it is quite technical. And there's more information on the SRA's website about this but basically the only students that can continue with the LPC route now is if they are currently studying for a law degree which they started in September 2021. And the degree itself started before the 31st of December 2012. So we may have some third years that are still technically eligible for the LPC route. But it's becoming a diminishing number of law graduates that are eligible non law graduates so anybody currently on a non law degree or those who are currently studying for A Levels they will all have to take the SQE route now and what we're seeing is, I think 2024 this September will be this a real tipping point from this transition from the LPC to the SP we already at the University of Law this year, we saw that there were more students studying for us QE than the LPC was probably a split of 60% 40%, the SQE I think that's going to dramatically increase by September 2024, for the reasons I've just outlined, and it's probably more likely to be 80% 20%. Or it could even be as high as 90% of our students will be using the SQE route over the LPC.

Emily Slade: Does it take longer to qualify at UBS QA?

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: This is a Yeah, that's a good question and one that again, students or prospective students frequently ask on the old LPC regime. Typically, if you're studying full time, it would be one academic year with the SQL. This is where the sort of flexibility kicks in. So we do still offer academic programs that prepare students to sit and pass SB one and SB two. But we also build into that program additional content beyond that, which you need to pass SB one and two, because that is what our law firms our law firm clients have asked us to do, because a lot of the content that was on the old LPC was dropped out of the SQE regime, but it's still considered to be really important practical content that employers want their future trainees to have before they join them. So we still have a full one year academic program. If anything, I would say it's a little bit fuller than the LPC and that's because the SQE assessments in functioning legal knowledge and the legal skills are full of them the LPCs assessment of them however, for those students who don't want that additional content don't need it, they may be going to firms that don't require that additional content, or they may have acquired the knowledge that they need, because they've worked in legal practice in some way before doing the sqp regime, you could take less time. And then you would only need to do this preparation courses, which if studied full time are a lot shorter than a full one year academic program. So the SP one prep course at the University of Law typically would take about three months full time. And our SQ E to prep course typically would take about two months full time. So it does, I think show you that there's a lot of flexibility. Now. However, one of the advantages of doing the full academic program is it is a master's program, it does help students with funding. And it also does have that extra content that again, is very popular with employers. So I think you can see, there isn't a one size fits all here. It really depends on your circumstances. And we will try and advise prospective students according to their needs as to what they should actually be studying.

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: Yes, I think one of the things that does sometimes take students by surprise is how expensive the SQP assessments are. And these fees are usually not included. And I'm not aware of any other training providers that includes these fees in their course fee. So these are usually on top of the fees that students have to pay for their program of study. And they are significant. So for SQL one, currently students are paying 1798 pounds to sit both FLK one and two. And for SQL two, it rises those assessments currently cost 2766 pounds. As you can see, it's it's a significant investment. And if you have to reset with both SB one and two, it's the same fee again, albeit if it's only one paper in the SP one, you'd only have to pay half of the fee that I just quoted. So it's it's significant. And I think it's a really important point for students to be aware of.

Emily Slade: You offer an employment promise of secure job in nine months or your money back. Can you explain a little bit about that?

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: Okay, so, at the University blog, we've we've offered the employability promise on a number of our programs for some period of time now, and the details are set out on our on our website. But just to sort of summarise what this actually means is that provided you've passed your program of study. If within nine months of leaving that program, you are not successful in getting employment. And I have to say that the vast majority do get legal employment. And that's the most important thing to my mind. But if you are unfortunate and you're not in that position, we refund the fees in the following way. So 50% of your fees are given to you as cash and returned to you. And then the remaining 50% of the fees that you've already paid are allocated towards another program of study at the University of Law and we have a lot of interesting academic masters in law which allows students to Study extra subjects and enhance their at their skills and knowledge and hopefully through that enhance their employability.

Emily Slade: Tell us a bit about the work experience you offer and how it helps.

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: Okay, so at the moment on our Master's programs, preparing students for the SQ E, we offer four weeks qualifying work experience, and that's carried out in our law clinic where students undertake real tasks for real clients, supervised by solicitors who work at the University of Law. So it's very akin to working in a law firm. And this qualifying work experience can be signed off by us and would contribute towards that two year period of qualifying work experience that I was speaking about earlier, which is one of the requirements that you need to satisfy to ultimately qualify as a sister. So effectively allows you to to complete a chunk of that 24 month, Q w e that's required to qualify as a solicitor. But even if you don't need it, because you've already done qualifying work experience, or you're about to join a firm on a two year qualifying work experience placement, it's really useful to develop those kind of key skills and that understanding of what would be expected from you in the profession. And I think it really helps set up students for interview interviews with prospective employers, and to kind of understand the profession more widely. And certainly, it's extremely popular. That is a very formal and structured, qualifying work experience offer that we make to students. And as you might expect, there are various terms and conditions that apply to that as as well, including requirements to have passed the sqp assessments. But we also as university have a fantastic career service, it's won many awards. It's extremely proactive, and supportive of students, we recognise how and how important it is that students get the right outcomes, having studied with the University of Law, you know, the, the journey to qualifying is long, and it's expensive, and we want our students to end up with good legal employment. And so whilst you're a student, we provide a lot of support in terms of making applications to employers, but we also provide lots of opportunities to do legal work through pro bono opportunities, and also with the network of relationships that we've built up over many years with legal employers. So there will always be a vast selection of work placement opportunities for students both paid and unpaid, whilst you're studying with us, which you can use to again, develop those kind of key skills, behaviors and attitudes that are expected and will allow you to really shine in any future interview.

Emily Slade: What are the challenges students might face on this course?

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: I think the key challenges are that the SQP one and two assessments are extremely tough high stakes assessments. And there's no getting away from that. They are set by the SRA for a purpose, to protect the consumers of legal services, so that they have the best entrance possible into the profession. And I think the other thing that makes it sometimes tough for both us and our students is the fact that these assessments are not under our control. So whilst we do everything we can in our power to prepare students for these assessments, because we're ultimately not the assessment setter. We're in often the same position as students. And we won't know what the papers will have covered in any particular setting, although obviously, we will make very educated guesses about what that is from our experiences or law school. But I think that degree of uncertainty for many students can be a little bit unnerving, because they are used to being at university or at school where there is some sort of ownership of those assessments. But I think the way we can reassure ourselves is this is very normal with the vast majority of the professions and the law profession is adapting, as are all the law schools and students to this new regime. The second challenge that I think and this is very real challenge is that the syllabus that is assessed through the SQ e regime is enormous. So it covers all of the academic law that you'd study on a law degree plus all of the new vocational content now previously on the LPC that academic law wasn't really assessed. So it's almost sort of doubled the syllabus. And therefore this is a huge amount to cover in terms of the new content, as well as revising the academic law that students should have acquired before starting on their preparation for the SQ E. So that's a really important point to bear in mind. If you work hard and you follow the program, students will be successful but it's a bit like training For a marathon, there's going to be a lot of hours of work to put in before you can get over the finishing line. And I guess the kind of third point I would make is for a lot of students, we recognise the fact that they are doing all of this and often will have other commitments in terms of work to fund their studies, or carrying responsibilities. And I think it's really important to be realistic about how you juggle those commitments and studying there are lots of part time options. And if you have got commitments that involve you, dedicating the number of or significant number of hours a week to other activities, we would really recommend you take a part time course, a full time course is what it says and often will involve between 40 and 50 hours of study a week, which is significant.

Emily Slade: And for anyone looking to qualify, what would your top tips be?

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: Okay, so for those who are looking to qualify through STP regime regime, my advice would be to remember that one of the reasons for its creation was to introduce flexibility, and there's no longer one size fits all. So sometimes you can think outside the box a bit more than perhaps one could have done in the LPC regime where you just simply had to do the LPC to become a solicitor. Now, there are options, you can still do an academic program. But you can also think about working and studying using the kind of prep courses to get ready for the assessments. And so I think in order to kind of get yourself to where you need to be there are a number of extra questions you need to ask yourself. So what are your career goals? Where do you want to work? What type of work would you like to end up doing? How will you fund your SQE studies? And those assessments? Remember the fees that I spoke about a moment ago? How much time can you commit to studying? And do you want to be able to work alongside studying for the SQP. Remembering that the SQE is a very intense preparation course. And then I think the final tip I would mention is that through the opening up of the regime, there are a lot of really interesting apprenticeship opportunities to qualify using SQP, including quite a lot of graduate apprenticeships. And there are a number of employers who are adopting these. So again, that's something that's really exciting, and may help some students in terms of being able to work alongside studying through SQL and having an employer who will contribute towards the fees that are required to set SQE one and two.

Emily Slade: Thank you so much for your time today.

Dr Jill Howell-Williams: Well thank you very much for having me. It's been a pleasure to talk about the SQ E. And it's very exciting to have seen all of the different students who've been through it so far, and I look forward to welcoming many more successful SQP students in the future.

Emily Slade: Thanks again to Dr. Jill for their time. If you want to find out more about the SQP you can click the links in the description. Make sure you give us a follow wherever you get your podcasts. If you want to get in touch and you can email us at podcast@prospects.ac.uk or find us on Instagram and ticked up. All the links are in the description. Thanks very much for listening and we'll see you next time.

Notes on transcript

This transcript was produced using a combination of automated software and human transcribers and may contain errors. The audio version is definitive and should be checked before quoting.

Find out more

  • Take a look at the University of Law's the SQE explained.
  • Discover more about the SQE.

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