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It’s the biggest shake-up in legal education in decades. The Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination (SQE) is set to change the way all solicitors qualify from 2021.
Here at The University of Law we’ve been looking closely at the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)’s plans as they’ve developed over the last few years, and now bring you this FAQ of what you need to know about the SQE proposals.
When will the SQE start?
The SRA have said that the SQE regime will not be introduced until September 2021 at the earliest. It will not be an immediate change – the new and current systems will run alongside each other for some years. The SRA are proposing that anyone who starts their legal education before the SQE is introduced will be allowed to follow their choice of the new or current process, as long as those using the current process complete it by 2032 (tbc).
How will the SQE change the process to become a solicitor?
To give you a clear understanding of how the SQE is going to change things, we’ll start with a quick overview of the current process and then go through the new process. (Different rules can apply, for instance if you are on a solicitor apprenticeship, or if you are already a qualified lawyer in a different jurisdiction).
The current process
- Qualifying law degree or a law conversion course: This is known as the academic stage of training, where you learn key areas of law. You complete it either by having a qualifying law degree (QLD), like our LLB, or you will need to complete a law conversion course, such as our GDL, before progressing on the LPC.
- Legal Practice Course (LPC): The LPC is known as the vocational stage of training, where you learn how to apply the law. You can either study just the minimum requirements of the LPC, or choose to include some extra content to earn a Masters qualification, such as our LPC LLM, or LPC MSc.
- Training contract (or ‘period of recognised training’): After completing our LPC you need to work for two years as a trainee solicitor, commonly called a training contract.
- Apply to the SRA to be admitted as a solicitor
- Qualify as a solicitor
The new process
- Undergraduate degree or equivalent: To become a solicitor, all applicants must either have an undergraduate degree, or equivalent experience (eg a degree level apprenticeship). Importantly, a QLD will no longer have any special meaning for the process, but it should help candidates prepare for some of the SQE assessments.
- SQE Stage 1: All applicants will have to sit and pass SQE Stage 1, whatever qualifications they have already. SQE Stage 1 will mainly assess your legal knowledge through multiple-choice examinations. You must complete SQE Stage 1 before progressing to SQE Stage 2.
- SQE Stage 2: Again, all applicants will have to sit these assessments. SQE Stage 2 will assess your legal skills through practical examinations and assessments.
- Qualifying work experience: You’ll need to complete a minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE), which can be with up to four different legal employers (and could include appropriate pro bono experience). You can do this during, before or after completing your SQE assessments, although we expect that in most cases candidates will have successfully completed at least SQE Stage 1 before starting their main period of QWE.
- Apply to the SRA for qualification: The SRA will complete quality and suitability checks only at this stage of the process to determine whether you are eligible to become a solicitor. (Under the current process these checks are done before starting the training contract.)
How does the SQE differ from the QLD/GDL and LPC?
The QLD, GDL and LPC are all courses of study. Each has to include certain prescribed subjects, but the details of the courses and the assessments are set by the course provider.
The SQE is fundamentally different, as it is just a set of exams. These exams will be set by Kaplan, and all students will sit the same SQE exams no matter where or how they did their studies. Any degree or other qualifications/exam results will be irrelevant under the new regime, except to show you have a degree or equivalent in some subject – the SRA will only use your SQE result to check you have the knowledge and skills to become a solicitor.
Of course, you’ll still need to study law and legal practice to get ready for the SQE. The University of Law will have a full range of programmes to prepare you not just for the SQE, but to give you the wider skills you need to stand out and succeed in the workplace.
What if I have a law degree or am considering studying LLB (Hons) Law?
Studying our LLB will mean you are prepared for the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE 1) or to progress onto our Bar Practice Course (if you wish to qualify as a barrister). Law degrees are also still a great foundation for a career in law, business and a huge range of other careers.
While studying a law degree will not exempt you from the SQE assessments (except possibly for some EU nationals working in the British legal profession who are already qualified in other jurisdictions – depending on the agreement ultimately reached on access to the single market and the terms of Brexit), the foundational subjects studied on a law degree – crime, contract, tort, land, equity, constitutional and administrative law and legal systems – will all be assessed in the new centralised SQE 1 Functioning Legal Knowledge Assessments, along with new subjects previously studied on the LPC in stage 1. This means studying the foundational subjects in either a law degree or some form of law conversion course akin to the GDL will still be required in order to successfully pass SQE 1. The University of Law’s LLB will include all the foundational subjects assessed in SQE 1 and will include modules designed to help you prepare fully for the other subject areas covered in SQE 1.
What if I’m part way through my training when the SQE starts?
Because it’s going to be a long transition, the SRA are proposing a period of 11 years from when the SQE starts for anyone who has already started their training to be able to qualify under the current process. So if the SQE starts in 2021 as planned, current students will have until at least 2032 to continue on either route to becoming a solicitor. The details aren’t finalised yet, so keep an eye out for any announcements, but you really don’t need to worry – as long as your law degree or GDL started before the SQE does, the SRA have said they will permit you a reasonable period to complete and qualify.
On the up-side, once the SQE does begin, anyone who wants to switch to that new route to qualification can do. So if you’ve started your legal studies before the SQE comes in, you can choose to sit the SQE and do QWE instead of a training contract. This means you can wait to see what the SQE looks like before making your mind up – as long as you’ve started before the SQE is launched.
What will the SQE look like and cover?
Some details such as the number of exams, the topics they will cover, and when/how often the exams will take place, are still uncertain and subject to review.
However, the SRA have published some proposals, and we do expect that the SQE will have the following key features:
- SQE Stage 1 is likely to have six multiple choice question exams (to test legal knowledge and practice) and one written exam (to test legal research and writing skills)
- All the SQE Stage 1 exams will have to be taken in the same assessment window – and so cannot be spread out over several months or years.
- All the SQE Stage 1 exams will have to be taken on a computer.
- SQE Stage 2 is likely to consist of ten assessments in total (five different types of assessment, taken in two different practice contexts), and will test legal skills such as interviewing or legal drafting.
- Candidates may have a choice of sitting all ten assessments at the same time, or in two groups of five.
- Some SQE Stage 2 exams will be taken on a computer, and others will take the form of role plays.
Is there anything I need to do now?
There is nothing you need to do at this stage. Exactly when the SQE will be introduced, and what it will involve, are still uncertain. We do know that it will not be until 2021 at the earliest before it comes in, and that once it does anyone who starts their studies beforehand will be able to choose which route they follow.
What’s most important will be to keep yourself updated as things develop so you can make decisions when the time is right, and be knowledgeable and informed about the SRA’s proposals when talking to potential employers.
Stay up to date
Whatever route you take to qualify as a solicitor, it’s still important to keep up to date with the latest news about the SQE. Find out more at law.ac.uk/sqe.
The Legal Practice Course is currently the final mandatory qualification required before commencing a training contract. It’s also a considerable financial commitment, especially following hikes in tuition fees. For that reason, you are well-advised to do as much research as you can – so read on!
The GDL is scheduled to be replaced by the SQE from September 2021. At the time of writing, the GDL is still an academic requirement for non-law graduates wishing to qualify as a solicitor.
While attending numerous law fairs last autumn, the Lex team was struck by the number of students voicing uncertainty and concern about the law conversion course and how candidates who have sat it may be perceived by employers. This article will hopefully offer a bit more information on what the conversion course is, and calm fears that it may be anything other than a respected, well-worn pathway into the legal profession.
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