LPC vs SQE: choosing the qualification route for you

There’s been much discussion among law firms, academics and other industry commentators around the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) over the past few years. Their differing views have been widely reported in the legal press so it’s no surprise that students are confused about the best route to qualification.

As the debate continues (even after it was announced by the SRA the first SQE exams would take place in November 2021), would-be solicitors in England and Wales are finding themselves having to wade through the information to try and make an informed decision. In this article, Victoria Cromwell, director of UK programmes at BARBRI works to demystify the main differences between the LPC and the new SQE and explain why the latter has been introduced.

SQE vs LPC – the main differences

One of the key differences between the new SQE route and the LPC is that with the LPC you must successfully complete it before you are able to move on to your two-year training contract. Meanwhile, the SQE enables you to gain work experience in a more flexible way, and this can take place alongside studying for the exams.

These blocks of qualifying work can take place with up to four different organisations under the Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) requirement of the SQE. The formal assessment element of the SQE covers core subjects from the LLB and the LPC, but this more dynamic approach to work experience means that students can bank relevant work experience before, during or after their exams, and is intended to go some way towards freeing the training contract ‘bottleneck’ that many aspiring lawyers face.

The good news for those who prefer the two-year training contract style placement is that the QWE can be taken as one continuous two-year block with the same employer. However, the benefit of taking the SQE route is that since you don’t have to be qualified before securing your work experience, the risk of paying out for the LPC and then not securing a training contract is diminished.

The nature of QWE and the ability to work while studying for your exams also means that would-be solicitors who find cost a barrier don’t have to try and secure a funded training contract with a firm in order to get their LPC fees paid. This means the option of choosing work placements based on an individual’s true interests and opens up a much wider variety of employers such as non-commercial firms and charitable or community organisations. More diversity in practice pre-qualification means solicitors with a broader range of experiences entering the legal sector, which can only be a good thing.

Another difference between the LPC and SQE is that with the latter, the route to qualification can be faster, given that the assessment and QWE elements can take place in tandem. Plus, experience can be ‘banked’, whether that be a placement during a law degree, working in a legal clinic, at a Citizen’s Advice Bureau on a training contract or as a paralegal.

Any decision when it comes to SQE v LPC depends on personal circumstances and an individual’s current situation of course. For those currently working as a paralegal, the LPC and training contract option could mean taking up to three calendar years to qualify and potentially periods of not earning. So, in this case, the SQE enables a much quicker route to qualification since paralegals will already likely have gained some relevant experience. Just be mindful that for any experience to count, it must be confirmed by a qualified solicitor or COLP. 

Phasing out the LPC – what does this mean for you?

For those concerned, fear not, the LPC will not simply be phased out overnight. While the SQE will eventually replace it, those already committed to a course of study can rest assured it will be another few years at least until it disappears in order to minimise disruption.

Initially, there was resistance from some corners of the legal industry over the LPC’s phasing out and introduction of the new SQE. However, since the SRA confirmed its introduction and more information about the structure and content of the SQE has become available, concerns have been eased and it seems that the profession is beginning to embrace this change.

Naturally, change in any sector is met with some trepidation, particularly the more traditional professions. Indeed, when the LPC itself was introduced in the early 90s to replace the Solicitors’ Finals, it was met with scepticism at first. Once it became established, as no doubt will happen with the SQE in time, those early reservations faded, and it became the industry standard.

Benefits of the SQE

One of the key benefits of the new SQE is that it enables prospective solicitors to study at their own pace. Preparation courses for the two SQE assessments, SQE1 and SQE2, can take place on a part-time or full-time basis, over varying periods of time. Students can also choose to combine their studies with working full or part-time depending on their circumstances.

Another advantage, which appeals to many, is that those who need to undertake paid work while they study for the SQE can use it towards their QWE as long as it’s undertaken in an appropriate setting. The fact that this two years’ QWE can be obtained at up to four organisations and doesn’t need to take place as one continuous 24-month period is another reason why the SQE is a much more flexible option for many trainee solicitors.

The QWE component of the SQE requires candidates to undertake hands-on, work-based experience in the legal sector. However, the scope of what this may entail allows for a broad range of interests: from working at a law firm, to a charitable organisation or a legal clinic as just a few options.

Your QWE must be signed off by a qualified solicitor or authorised person who can confirm you have been given the opportunity to experience some or all of the solicitor competencies set out by the SRA. To help with this, many students, especially those choosing to complete several placements, use an online diary to help keep track of their achievements. Look for one such as the Flex Legal Journal, which lets you record your experience and keep on top of your progress against the SRA’s framework.

Of course, the benefits of the SQE go far beyond just those at an individual level. The positive impact on the industry in terms of the diversity of solicitors entering the legal profession has the potential to become far-reaching.

Diversifying the legal industry

One of the major barriers to people from a wider variety of backgrounds and circumstances working in the legal industry to date has been the cost of qualifying. Not to mention the risk of investing in doing so to then not secure a training contract under the LPC system.

In fact, recent research by Hook Tangaza found that £21 million is wasted every year by graduates who don’t go on to secure a training contract after qualifying under the existing routes.

The average cost of qualifying as a solicitor was estimated to be around £24,000 with 85% of those coming through the GDL route self-funding rather than receiving support from a firm. Hook Tangaza predicted the introduction of the SQE would save self-funded students anywhere between 25% and 50% in training costs.

By bringing down the cost of becoming a solicitor, the prospect of training to enter the profession isn’t so far out of reach for a much wider demographic of people, particularly with the added option of undertaking paid work while you train.

Of course, over and above the benefits at both an individual and sector level of a more diverse legal profession, the biggest impact will ultimately be felt by those who the industry serves, its clients. To have confidence that their best interests are being fully considered, clients want to be represented by people with whom they can identify and who understand them and that they feel comfortable building long term relationships with.

For more information, visit: https://barbri-prep.com/sqe/

Qualifying Work Experience – https://hubs.ly/H0JrH0p0

Hook Tangaza Report – https://hubs.ly/H0JQ1tD0