The New SQE (Solicitor’s Qualifying Exam)
From 2021 there is a new route of entry into the legal profession. The Solicitor’s Qualifying Exam (SQE) is a system of exams that will be compulsory for those wishing to qualify as a solicitor.
Covering legal practice in England and Wales, this is the biggest change to law training for years. Nicknamed the ‘super-exam’, the SQE has been introduced by the Board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority to ensure a common assessment and qualification process for all trainee solicitors.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority has outlined the necessary competencies that a candidate must have to qualify and practice within the legal profession. These competencies will be mastered through study and completion of the SQE.
Under the current systems of training, a trainee solicitor completes the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), if necessary, and then the Legal Practice Course (LPC) to become qualified.
These courses are provided by various institutions such as universities and law schools and are overseen by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to ensure high standards are maintained. However, each training provider structures their course, content and assessment processes in different ways.
The new SQE will bring all assessments and qualifications into line and will provide a standard examination process across the board. Kaplan has been named as the examination provider and assessor, and testing will be carried out in centres across England and Wales.
The new SQE is proposed to start from September 2021 at the earliest.
All aspiring lawyers must complete an undergraduate degree first and foremost. This is usually expected to be a Bachelor of Law degree (known as the LLB, shortened from its full Latin name Legum Baccalaureus).
Under the current system, graduates with degrees in other subjects can take the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) conversion course to start their training as a lawyer.
Under the new SQE system, it is thought that graduates of non-law degrees will be able to take the SQE route to qualify but may need to complete an SQE preparation course in advance. We await further clarification on this as details of the SQE are finalised.
It may be possible for a candidate to commence studying law without an undergraduate degree, should they possess an equivalent qualification at Level 6 or above.
Students that hold an undergraduate law degree will have a solid foundation for commencing the SQE but a degree in law will not act as an alternative to the new SQE qualification. Every solicitor must complete and pass the SQE, regardless of educational background.
At this stage, the exact details of the SQE process are not yet finalised. What we do know is that the SQE will be split into two exams: Qualifying Examinations 1 and 2.
It is thought that the SQE1 will share some similarities with the existing GDL course.
As a general overview, under the new SQE system, anyone wishing to practice law must:
- Possess a law degree or similar
- Complete the required two years of Qualifying Work Experience
- Pass the Solicitors Qualifying Exam parts 1 and 2
- Meet the character and suitability requirements as set by the Solicitors Regulations Authority
The final stage in the SQE process, the character and suitability test, requires students to disclose whether they have any criminal convictions, incidents of academic misconduct such as cheating or plagiarism, discrepancies in personal finance management or a history of dishonesty or violence.
Candidates that don’t disclose with full candour will be rejected. This includes omitting to report minor criminal convictions, one of the most common causes of failing this aspect of the assessment.
Students must undertake the Solicitors Qualifying Examinations 1 and 2 as the major components of the SQE qualification. Although finalised details have not been released, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has made some indications of what will be involved.
The SQE Test 1 will comprise of multiple-choice tests designed to assess ‘functioning legal knowledge’.
These multiple-choice tests are likely to cover the following:
- Commercial and corporate law and practice
- Commercial and company dispute resolution in contract or tort
- Criminal law and practice
- Property law and practice
- Principles of professional conduct
- Wills and administration of estates and trusts
- Public and administrative law
- EU law and the law of England and Wales
During the pilot testing, an online written skills assessment was also included, consisting of research and writing exercises that replicate real-life scenarios. However, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has since suggested that this component will be removed.
The analysis of the pilot tests revealed that candidates belonging to some protected groups (ethnic minority groups in particular) were found to be at a disadvantage in this area of assessment.
The time frame restrictions for completing the SQE1 test are not yet clear, but we do know that SQE1 must be completed in its entirety before the candidate can move on to SQE2. Initially, there will be two SQE1 exam sittings per year, with the first proposed for November 2021.
The second part of the process, the SQE 2, will present ten skills assessments. These can be completed all at the same time or in two separate sittings. The assessments will be practical and will test the candidate’s ability to consult with a client and provide appropriate advice.
It is expected that this section of the qualification will follow on from the two years of work experience requirement, meaning that the candidate has had considerable real practice by this point.
There will be a role play aspect to this stage and areas covered are likely to include:
- Client interviewing
- Legal drafting
- Legal research and written advice
- Case and matter analysis
It is expected that students will have six years to complete the full SQE process to qualify as a solicitor. Within this time frame, students are allowed a maximum of three attempts to pass all areas of the SQE.
Universities and law schools are currently developing courses that will prepare students for the SQE system. These preparatory courses are not compulsory, as stated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, but it’s thought that they will give candidates an advantage when applying for the SQE course.
This will inevitably encourage more people to take them, which may result in preparation courses becoming the accepted route into the SQE programme.
Some organisations are already offering SQE preparation courses in anticipation of the SQE 2021 launch, with costs of around £7,000.
There has also been some talk of universities including the SQE1 within the law degree study programme, although this has not been confirmed. If this were the case, though, it would be a very appealing prospect for trainee solicitors. They would be increasing the qualifications achieved within the three year study period and would also be able to complete the SQE1 using student loan funding if granted for their undergraduate degree.
Interestingly, the pilot SQE exams revealed that students who had taken the GDL or who had studied for an undergraduate law degree at Russell Group universities fared better than other students, showing that variations in the types of study and the institutions providing the teaching can have an effect on the success of the student sitting the SQE examinations.
The SQE 2021 course requires the candidate to complete two years of work experience in a relevant field of work.
Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) allows the student the opportunity to see how legal professionals work in practice, to interact and engage with clients and to complete the competencies set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority as a condition of passing the SQE.
Unlike previous training contract placement requirements, students no longer need to work in a specific number of specialities of law or experience contentious and non-contentious work.
The SQE course criteria allows for the work experience placements to be spread amongst up to four different organisations.
It is hoped that by allowing students to spread their placement across four different companies, opportunities will be easier to secure, as the current system can present difficulties for students seeking out a full two-year training contract.
In reality, law firms will likely prefer a candidate who remains with one organisation for the full two years. The chosen organisation will then invest time and money in supporting that individual to learn the needs and clients of their firm, going on to work within the company or organisation after qualifying.
The work experience itself could involve volunteering in a law clinic or working as a paralegal, for example. There is a requirement that the mentors involved supervise, assist and support the student in achieving the competencies set by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
The placements can be either paid or pro bono work. Pro bono work involves giving free advice to those who do not qualify for legal aid, allowing the student to develop their legal skills and put theory into practice. These volunteer positions also provide opportunities for the student to build relationships and extend their professional network.
Internships with legal charities may also provide pro bono work experience opportunities that benefit both the student and those in need of legal advice.
After some recent concerns about the process of assessing and signing off students undertaking their SQE work experience placements, the Solicitors Regulation Authority clarified its rules on who can sign off the work experience. It reassures concerned legal professionals that only professionals extensively involved in observing the student will be able to sign off placements, in a bid to ensure that the calibre of students qualifying is of a high enough standard.
There were also concerns that unsupervised students may be vulnerable to exploitation in unhealthy working environments, which the Solicitors Regulation Authority has promised to monitor and regulate as part of the new system.
It is expected that the two years’ SQE qualifying work experience will take place once the SQE1 is completed, although the Solicitors Regulation Authority has not stipulated this as a compulsory requirement.
The ability to spread the experience over several placements means that, in theory, the student could carry out parts of the SQE qualifying work experience at different times throughout the SQE period.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority expects the SQE study costs to fall somewhere between £3,000 and £4,500, but some estimates suggest costs of up to £10,000 may be more likely.
They have provided a breakdown of these costs as follows:
- SQE1 will account for £1,100 to £1,650 of the total amount
- SQE2 will account for £1,900 to £2,850
These are estimates and no final costings have been published up to now.
Under the current system, the average cost of the GDL is upwards of £8,000, rising to £12,000 from some institutions. The cost of the LPC is even higher, with course fees ranging from £9,000 to over £16,000. The SQE 2021 system will bring down these costs, benefitting trainee solicitors.
The work experience element of the SQE 2021 provides students with the potential to earn while they learn, so securing a paid placement can fund some of the SQE course fees.
It is unclear whether SQE students will be eligible for a student loan, but it is thought unlikely at this point. This has prompted the legal profession to voice legitimate concerns that, without a loan or funding provision, the costs will prove prohibitive for some hopeful candidates and the effects this will have on social mobility.
The uptake of preparatory courses as mentioned above may also widen the gap between those who can afford to pay for these courses and those that can’t.
The new SQE system will come into effect from September 2021 at the earliest. In its infancy, it will also run alongside existing training systems – the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
If you are already studying for the LLB (an undergraduate degree in law) before the SQE comes into effect in September 2021, you will be able to choose whether to qualify under the old system or the new system. You’ll have until 2032 to complete the old system if this is the route you choose.
However, although there is an extended changeover period, in practice, it’s thought that many legal firms will want a quicker transition to the new system. The City of London Law Society has suggested that the City law firms that are supporting students to qualify as solicitors will not be prepared to work with both systems alongside one another for an extended period and that, realistically, they will expect candidates to be qualifying with the SQE from 2022.
Students who commence an LLB from September 2021 onwards will work under the new system and will qualify with the SQE.
For those who’ve already started a law qualification when the SQE is launched, there will be the option to switch to the new system if candidates decide to, meaning that they are free to weigh up both methods of training before making a final decision.
Some students may prefer to study under the current programme of competing a GDL followed by an LPC and a two-year training contract with a law firm. If this is the case, it is advisable to commence this process as soon as possible before the SQE becomes the accepted route of training.
The significant benefit of training under the current method, while it is still available, is that students are eligible to apply for student loans to fund their studies.
Some experts believe that there will be a surge in international lawyers taking the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS), the current conversion course which allows them to practice in England and Wales. This scheme, also open to barristers from England and Wales wishing to practice as solicitors, will no longer be available once the SQE comes into effect.
The QLTS costs considerably less than the upper end of the SQE predicted costs. As it stands currently, the last QLTS test process will be in July 2021, with candidates having a year from then to complete the second part of the qualification to be able to practice as a solicitor in England and Wales.
In very loose terms, the new SQE system takes elements of the existing GDL and LPC and combines them into one standardised programme of examinations and assessments. The legal profession has voiced mixed reactions to the proposed system and the Solicitors Regulation Authority is considering this feedback while refining the details of the SQE system.
It remains to be seen how the rollout and execution of the SQE will unfold and how well it will be received by the legal profession. Some concerns and recommendations have already been put forward by representative bodies and professional legal firms and have been considered and acted upon.
While the details of the SQE system are finalised, candidates considering a career in law are advised to follow updates and developments closely in the lead up to the release of the new ‘super-exam’ system.
If the outcomes proposed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority are met, training and qualifying as a legal professional is set to become a more streamlined and flexible process.