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All you need to know about the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)

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Published: 23 October 2019

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have announced their decision to introduce the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) in Autumn 2021, which will reform how solicitors qualify in England and Wales. We talked to the Head of Law and Principal Tutor, Dr Caroline Gibby, about the biggest shake-up in legal education in the UK in decades. 

A student writing

What is the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)?

The SQE will change the way you qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales from Autumn 2021. The SQE is being introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and ran by Kaplan. Under the current system, you can take a Qualifying Law Degree (QLD) which will normally last for three years, followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) which can be taken full-time over one year or part-time over two years. This is then followed by an on-the-job-training contract which usually takes two years to complete. 

However, the existing system also provides a route for those with a degree in an unrelated subject. In this case, you will take the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) followed by the LPC and training contract. The advantage of the QLD is that it gives you exemptions from the initial stage of the current qualification process. 

The SQE is a new system of exams that all solicitors must have passed at the point of qualifying. The new process is divided into two stages, with the first stage set to cover legal knowledge and the second testing practical and professional skills. 

Caroline says: "Under the new system, aspiring solicitors, whether they have a law degree or a degree in another discipline, will need to first pass SQE1 before they start their on-the-job learning or qualifying work experience. The SQE1 covers detailed knowledge of the law and also key elements of legal practice which means that students will have both academic and practice-based knowledge before they start their qualifying work experience.

So taking a law degree will be a very useful and relevant step towards a legal career."

A book and a hammer

Why change the route to qualifying as a solicitor?

On their website, the SRA indicates that 'the SQA will mean that everyone who becomes a solicitor will meet the same high standards in a consistent way'. 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), however, Caroline isn’t convinced.

She says: "While the jury is out in terms of how the assessment process might work, there is a wider issue in that the whole assessment process is expensive. It’s going to cost about £1,500 just to take the exam and SQE2 will cost around £3,000, so £4,500 in total. It's likely that students will still want to have some preparatory courses to complete both SQE 1 and 2, so the cost of these also needs to be factored in. Where it might make a difference to the wider profession is that students from a non-law discipline could be encouraged to think about qualification as a solicitor post-graduation or later on in life.

The SQE process was designed to create a consistent approach to the way in which students prepared for practice. In terms of SQE1 – which uses multi-choice questions as the gateway assessment, students will need practice answering these types of questions and in terms of equipping a potential trainee for the world of work, the jury is still out. What it does mean for HE providers is that the development of Student Law Clinics and live client experience will be increasingly important. For practitioners, it will also make a difference to what they can expect from their new trainees – not just at the start of their training contract, but also how they will help them in preparation for the SQE2 super assessment.

We are making sure that we are carefully reviewing the developments so that we can best ensure that our courses still provide students with an interesting and vibrant course that equips them for their legal practice or professional career.”

Dr Caroline Gibby, 
Head of Law, Principal Tutor and Team Leader

What is in the Solicitors Qualifying Exam?

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. Following the recent SQE1 pilot there have been some changes in what students are likely to face. We understand that there are two assessments that focus on the agreed functioning legal knowledge criteria which are:

  • Business law and practice: dispute resolution, contract, tort, public and administrative law, legal system and legal services
  • Property practice: wills and the administration of estates and trusts, solicitors accounts, land law, criminal litigation and criminal law

Each assessment in SQE1 will be made up of 180 multiple-choice questions and will cover the law and practice so the implications for students in terms of timing and concentration will be significant. The assessments will also be computerised and will take place in venues agreed by Kaplan. 

SQE2 assessments will consist of practical exercises such as mock interviews with actors playing the roles of clients. 

Caroline says: "A major issue with this is that key social justice areas of law like family, employment and medical law will not be assessed within the SQE system. We don’t feel that this provides a balanced understanding of the law, so that’s why we are still going to continue to teach the subjects that we feel are necessary to make a good lawyer. So, when we're looking at our successful and well-regarded LLB, we're not going to change very much at all. What we will be doing, is preparing our students as best as possible for their legal and other careers."

How will the SQE affect people already studying a law degree, GDL or LPC?

There is no need to worry as there will be a long transition period of several years from 2021, in which candidates who are already on one of the former courses will be able to qualify as solicitors the old way. However, it's worth mentioning that several, larger city firms, have indicated that they are likely to require all future trainees to take the SQE from 2022. 

Caroline graduated with an LLB (Hons) and is qualified as a solicitor. She has worked in commercial property, private clients and wealth management. She progressed to become a partner in a law firm in the Midlands where her work focused on family and vulnerable client matters in particular. To find out more about Caroline, please visit her staff profile

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