The SQE is the new route of qualification for solicitors in England and Wales – taking over from the LPC, which is now being gradually phased out. There are a number of differences to take note of (manifesting into significant pros and cons for candidates to weigh up), but the main focus here is the nature of the new SQE route itself.
Assuming you are taking the traditional route through university (see our article on solicitor apprenticeships for details on this rapidly growing alternative route), you will complete a degree, a conversion course like the GDL or PGDL (although technically optional) if your degree was not a qualifying law degree (e.g. LLB), the SQE exams and a period of QWE (qualifying work experience).
Find out more about The University of Law’s SQE courses.
The new QWE requirements are very flexible – for example, this experience no longer needs to take place at a law firm (it may be at a pro-bono clinic or in-house in a business’ legal team, for instance), could be completed overseas, can be satisfied by separate stints at up to four different organisations, and could be fulfilled by paralegal work.
The current issue at hand, however, is the SQE exams themselves – and the reasons why law firms aren’t particularly satisfied with the extent to which their future trainees are being prepared for life as a solicitor.
Before explaining how law firms feel the SQE syllabus is limited, it is necessary to outline exactly what this syllabus is. The SQE exams are broken down further into SQE1 and SQE2.
SQE1 focuses on ‘functioning legal knowledge’ and is assessed across two exams, including content such as:
SQE2 focuses more on the practical application of legal skills – for example, some of its assessment is oral rather than written, and other assessments include writing attendance notes. These skills are applied to content including:
A more detailed breakdown of the SQE syllabus is also available.
As already mentioned, it is now possible via the SQE route (it was not previously with the LPC route) to sit your final exams without having completed a conversion course (e.g. the GDL, often now renamed the PGDL but largely similar) if coming from a non-law undergraduate degree.
In reality, however, taking this risky approach could potentially expose huge gaps in knowledge amongst students. As a result, surveys have suggested that a staggering 98% of law firms still expect their trainees to complete a conversion course. It has even been suggested that the SRA making conversion courses optional could actually be considered rather reckless, as if indicating to students that continuing without having completed one won’t raise significant issues further down the line (most firms clearly think it will).
A large number of firms also feel that the SQE exams fail to provide enough content on specific practice areas. In the old LPC route, law firms often chose some of their students’ ‘electives’ for them – a Magic Circle or elite US firm, for example, was very likely to add a few corporate-related modules to the syllabus of their future trainees. While the SQE is touted as being more ‘flexible’ on the whole, the electives are being phased out, and so firms are left wondering how to fill these gaps.
A number of firms (over 80% according to some surveys) are now looking into extra teaching for their future trainees beyond the SQE syllabus, which may be provided by an external company coming into the office during an aspiring solicitor’s two years as a trainee, for example. This is an expensive extra cost to the firms themselves, and one which no firm will be looking forward to considering the current challenging market conditions.
Other legal industry professionals have raised concerns that the SQE does not address the needs of a law firm as a business. The SQE does have a number of practical elements, and is much less strictly theoretical than the PGDL, for example, but it also appears limited in practical areas which apply to the running of a business.
This includes areas such as the use of legal tech, managing client relationships, and overseeing deal strategy. All of these are pivotal aspects of law firm operations (particularly as lawyers progress into more senior roles up the corporate ladder), but they are not addressed in depth during the SQE exams.
The SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority – responsible for SQE exams) has recognised that the SQE is limited in some of these ways. However, it responds by noting that the SQE was only meant to be ‘a foundation to build upon’. In other words, it never suggested that the new course was going to be fully comprehensive, as some firms are suggesting. It is certainly true that some of the issues being raised were not comprehensively addressed in the old LPC syllabus either.
However, the way in which the SRA has marketed the SQE as being an improved version of the LPC may have contributed to the particularly aggravated responses of law firms in these areas. This doesn’t just apply to course content – the SQE was also touted for being far cheaper than the LPC (and thus more appealing to large law firms, who often cover the tuition fees of their future trainees), but the need to top-up SQE teaching privately may ironically make the new route even more expensive.
The new SQE exams have been challenged by a number of law firms for not being comprehensive enough – missing out key aspects of a legal education which they feel their future trainees need to grasp. The SRA maintains that the new route is more flexible and was never intended to be fully comprehensive, which has generally left firms with little choice but to arrange extra tuition outside of traditional SQE teaching.
This raises particular questions for those qualifying without a training contract lined up (e.g. aspiring solicitors paying their own tuition fees). Will law firms be wary about offering them a training contract post-SQE exams due to a perceived lack of knowledge? It may be too early to say with complete certainty, but most firms are reassuring aspiring solicitors without training contracts during law school that this lack of knowledge will not be a major obstacle to obtaining work afterwards, since they may still top-up their education where necessary.
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