The SQE

Everything you need to know about the SQE

As of 2021 the way to qualify as a solicitor is changing. The proposed scheme for all would-be solicitors is the Solicitors Qualifying Examination. Here is a detailed guide explaining the changes to make sure you’re ready for 2021.

The proposals for the SQE are in constant flux, with various trials ongoing.  We will endeavor to keep this guide up to date as things change. This guide is currently accurate, to the best of our knowledge, as of August 2019.

The purpose of the single licensed examination is to ensure consistent high standards amongst all prospective solicitors before qualifying. In order to qualify you will need to have:

  • A degree in any subject (or an equivalent qualification or work experience- this could be an apprenticeship level 6 or 7 or professional qualification level 6/7).
  • Passed both stages of the SQE assessment – SQE 1 focuses on legal knowledge and SQE 2 on practical legal skills.
  • 2 years’ qualifying work experience (or QLE).
  • Passed character and suitability requirements.

Kaplan is partnering with Pearson to use test centre’s across England and Wales. There will be at least two opportunities a year to take the SQE, likely taking place in June and December.

There are two examination sections to focus on:

SQE 1

This tests the functioning of a student’s legal procedural knowledge and is based on practical legal skills.

The areas covered include seven key areas possibly eight – EU law is not yet confirmed:

  •  legal research and writing (the only practical element);
  •  principles of professional conduct, public and administrative law, and the legal systems of England and Wales;
  • dispute resolution in contract or tort;
  • property law;
  • commercial and corporate law;
  • wills and the administration of estates and trusts;
  • and criminal law.

The proposed format for SQE1 is to split assessments into two exams. The first will be a three-hour written exam containing approximately 160 multiple-choice questions (MCQs), testing both candidates’ legal knowledge and, crucially, how they would apply it in real scenarios.

The second exam will be another written assessment, this time focusing on legal research and writing skills.

Recently results have been published from a trail of SQE1.  These results can be found here https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/policy/sqe/pilot/sra-response-sqe1-pilot.page. The results suggest SQE1 requires adjustment to minimize its issues.  Key issues highlighted include the lack of certainty of grade rates. There is no benchmark for passing or failing. Further, it has been suggested individuals who had not completed a GDL or been to a Russell Group university suffered lower results. Therefore SQE 1 will require adjustments.

SQE 2

SQE2 covers the practical skills needed to be a solicitor, similar to the LPC. There are five Practical Legal Skills assessments, taken in two practice contexts (a total of 10 assessments)

 These plan to test the skills required to work effectively as a solicitor (client interviewing, legal research and writing, drafting, advocacy, and case analysis)

SQE2 includes mock interviews with actors playing the roles of clients. It has been suggested these practical skills will be assessed in two areas of law chosen by the candidate. These choices are:

  • criminal practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • property;
  • wills and the administration of estates; and
  • business practice.

The expected trial date for SQE2 is in December and will be published shortly after.

After graduating from a law or non-law degree, candidates will take SQE1. As the SQE involves exams, it is expected that most candidates will do a separate SQE1preparation course before taking the SQE1 exams. These courses are still being developed. At some universities, a three-year law degree may incorporate preparation to enable law graduates to take the SQE1 assessments straight after finishing their degrees.

SQE1 must be completed prior to taking SQE 2.

As soon as a candidate passes SQE1, they will have six years in which to complete the two years’ QLE and pass SQE2. Retakes will be available twice (i.e. a maximum of three attempts overall) during that six-year period.

All candidates as the SQE states will also need to complete at least two-years full-time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience.

This offers the opportunity to develop the skills of a solicitor.

It can be gained in one block of time or in stages, before, during or after SQE1 and SQE2, so long as it is in no more than four organisations. It can be paid or unpaid work and could include time spent:

  • on placement during a law degree
  • on a vacation scheme
  • in a student law clinic
  • working for Citizen Advice
  • working as a paralegal
  • in a traditional two-year training contract.

Whether they will allow a wider range of experiences is to be determined by SRA guidance and all must adhere to the necessary competencies of the SRA. These competencies include legal research, taking responsibility for one’s own learning, taking steps to obtain help, communicating clearly, analysing problems, obtaining facts and drafting. These appear in most kinds of work experience.

Qualifying work experience must be signed off by one of the following:

  • the compliance officer for the legal practice (COLP) or a solicitor
  • a solicitor working in the organisation you are working for
  • another solicitor willing to sign off the experience, who has direct experience of the candidate’s work.

The solicitor does not have to hold a practising certificate.

If you plan to use your current experience, you should start to think about how this can be recorded and who will sign it off.

For each placement, the following must be signed off:

  • the details of the work experience carried out
  • that it provided the opportunity to develop some or all of the prescribed competencies for solicitors
  • that no issues arose during the work experience that raise questions over the candidate’s character and suitability to be admitted as a solicitor.

The SQE is abolishing the requirement to do a formal training contract. However, a traineeship is still one way of getting the required work experience. Therefore, larger law firms have no plans to get rid of or alter their formal traineeship. It is less likely they will want to shorten traineeships with them just because you’ve already done a year’s work experience. But for those seeking to work in high-street, smaller firms, the option of qualifying as a solicitor after doing legal work experience may become possible.

Qualifying without a training contract (period of recognised training)

Candidates who have taken the LPC but are unable to find a training contract, can continue to qualify under the equivalent means route. By producing a portfolio to demonstrate how your experience is equivalent to a period of recognised training and submitting it for assessment.

This qualifying work experience is valuable, allowing students to apply academic knowledge of law to the real world, introducing them to the way in which legal practices and departments are run.

The final stage is to 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 phase.)

As structured here:

SQE1 = pass + SQE2 = pass + QLE = solicitor

Data will be published about education and training providers performances in due course.

These have not yet been developed, so information on the length or likely costs of such courses is not yet available.

Candidates should consider whether the training they have undertaken is enough to prepare for SQE assessments. Universities, Colleges and private organizations are already looking at what they will offer to candidates. It is expected that there will be a range of options available.

Non-law graduates will need to do a SQE1-preparation course that will probably resemble the GDL, while both groups will need to gain some legal work experience to pass SQE2.

City firms are also making plans that could include requiring trainees to do extra “City-specific” training on top of the SQE itself. Special electives could form part of a SQE-preparation course preferred by certain City firms. Whether firms will sponsor their future trainees’ fees for such courses – as they currently do for the LPC – remains to be seen.

This is the most concerning area for most graduates. Although it should be cheaper cheaper than the alternative LPC, the estimated prices are not certain.

Current estimates suggest it will cost between £3,000 – £4,500 to sit the SQE. Further breaking down to:

  •         SQE 1: £1,100 – £1,650
  •         SQE 2: £1,900 – £2,850

These do not include any further training you may need.

The costs are based on an estimated 35 hours of assessment: written tests, computer-based assessments and simulations such as mock client interviews.

At your university there will probably be a wealth of societies for you to join. Make sure you become a member of the law society as they will have great links to law firms and interesting events for you to attend. If there is a debating society this would definitely look good on your applications. Similarly, other clubs where you can demonstrate leadership and other skills will help law firms are keen to know that you are able to balance your academic studies and other commitments as this will be key when you start your training contract.

If you have already secured a training contract – speak to your future employer, as they may have a preference on the route you take.

If you will complete your QLD or GDL before September 2020

It is recommend that you should progress straight onto the LPC as soon as you are ready. You could instead choose to wait for the SQE, although the SQE route would result in taking further exams in areas of law that you have already passed.  See more details about the current route of qualification below.

If you will have started, but not completed your QLD or GDL before September 2020

According to the SRA, if you start the QLD or GDL before September 2020, you should still be able to qualify under the current route. In theory, this should mean you have a choice between the SQE and the LPC. However, the SQE route would result in taking further exams in areas of law that you have already passed.  See more details about the current route of qualification below.

If you will be starting your law degree or GDL after September 2020

You will probably have to qualify through the SQE route, although the SRA are considering whether, provided you have been offered a training contract before that date, you will be able to complete your journey to qualification via the existing route.

The current route involves the LPC course. You can qualify under the current route until 2032 if you have started or completed or accepted an offer on the CPE (including the GDL), qualifying law degree or training contract. You will need to:

  •         have a qualifying law degree
  •         pass the Legal Practice Course (LPC)
  •         have a period of recognised training (training contract)
  •         pass the character and suitability requirements.

If you receive an offer of a training contract, particularly if the firm is sponsoring you for your LPC, you should probably take it, enabling you to qualify this way.

The current LPC requires study only for one year for the full-time LPC and, if you can get a period of recognised training, you can qualify within three years from starting your LPC.

However, if you pay for the LPC yourself, without the offer of a period of recognized training, you risk not being able to qualify through the current route if you fail to obtain a training contract before 2032. The LPC can cost up to £16,750.

It is not yet known whether the SRA will offer the SQE assessments in the Welsh language.

Universities in Wales are required to comply with the Welsh language standards imposed by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011.

The SRA has said that it will offer the SQE in Welsh provided it can ensure comparability of standards between the English and Welsh versions and that the cost of producing a Welsh version is not prohibitive.