The SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination) is one of a few steps that aspiring lawyers need to complete in order to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales.
The route to qualification usually starts with a university degree (although solicitor apprenticeships are a relatively new alternative – the SQE is simply studied for alongside day-to-day work towards the end of the apprenticeship). Your university degree can be a QLD/qualifying law degree (e.g. an LLB), or a non-law degree (e.g. a BA in History or a BSc in Physics). If graduating with a non-law degree, you’d traditionally then complete a conversion course (e.g. the GDL, now renamed the PGDL) – this is no longer compulsory, but still highly recommended (and compulsory for most firms if you’re looking to secure a training contract). We weigh up the pros and cons of that decision here. After that, you’ll re-join your QLD friends to start on the final required phase of exams – the SQE.
Once you’ve completed the SQE, you need two years of qualifying work experience (QWE) to be admitted by the SRA as a solicitor. The new overall SQE route makes QWE very flexible – for example it can be done at a number of organisation types, and can actually be completed at any time in the overall process.
SQE1 is made up of two multiple-choice exams and focuses on ‘functioning legal knowledge’ in the following areas:
SQE2, on the other hand, focuses on developing legal skills such as research, advocacy and writing attendance notes. Topics covered through the development of these skills include:
The most common route to completing the SQE is via a taught SQE prep course. These are offered by a number of ‘law schools’ throughout England and Wales. Some of these institutions are quite specialised for teaching such professional qualifications and have numerous teaching centres across London and other regions in the UK (e.g. BPP or University of Law). Other course providers are attached to a more traditional university (e.g. the SQE courses at De Montfort University or Manchester Metropolitan).
These courses usually last around a year if studying full-time, or two years if studying part-time.
During this time period, you’ll often be taught in a fairly comparable style to university, with pre-reading and practice exercises set before a class, then seminar-style sessions where your answers are discussed in groups with tutors. However, there is a relatively heavy emphasis on independent study on most of these courses – no reputable SQE course advertises itself as being able to spoon-feed all the content to its students.
A major reason why many students consider self-studying for the SQE is the high cost of teaching. The SQE was actually introduced, among many other reasons, to reduce the financial barriers to entry for the solicitor profession (which is currently experiencing a big push for increased social mobility).
Costs vary quite widely between courses, but for a London course you’re currently looking in the region of £8,000-£12,000 for a one-year full prep course. This is often structured as two packages – SQE1 prep and SQE2 prep, which might be around £5,000 each. If you’re willing to study at regional teaching centres, you could end up saving a few thousand overall. Remote courses (e.g. those not incorporating any in-person teaching at all) also tend to be slightly cheaper.
It is worth noting that many providers offer reduced fees for students via scholarship and bursary schemes. Each provider will have different offerings (which you can view via their websites or by contacting them directly if unclear), but you’re often looking at significant course fee reductions if you can secure one. Those currently available tend to be a mix of means-tested (e.g. you prove that you genuinely can’t afford to cover the fees yourself) and those awarded based on exceptionally high academic potential (likely considering the quality of the university you attended, the grades you received, etc).
Self-study for the SQE is undoubtedly the cheaper option. However, there are still some costs worth bearing in mind (which are often all bundled together in the prep course packages). For example, you’ll need to source your own resources. Legal textbooks are known for being extremely expensive, and you should expect to spend hundreds (at least) in order to get the right SQE materials in front of you. You’ll also need to enter yourself into all the exams, which costs between £3,000 and £4,000 in total (but is subject to change regularly).
In short, you’ll certainly make a significant saving compared to choosing a prep course – but will still have to come up with a decent amount of money.
Another major concern of students (one which often pushes them towards a prep course) is the ability to self-teach the content on the SQE. In reality, it’s certainly going to be harder to teach yourself many of the complex legal concepts that other students are being instructed on by experienced tutors (many of whom were/still are practising lawyers themselves). You need to be incredibly disciplined and independent to put a self-study program together that will allow you to get through all the content in enough depth. That being said, there are a great number of resources appearing online that can help you to navigate the content (e.g. the number of ‘lawfluencers’ posting educational content around the SQE on YouTube).
In short, taking a prep course definitely stands as the more tried-and-tested route for SQE study (especially considering how new the course is), but self-study is also possible if you possess an extremely high level of self-discipline and organisation.
Virtually all aspiring solicitors who have secured a training contract will be entered onto prep courses by their sponsoring law firms automatically (usually paying their tuition fees in the process, too). The vast majority of firms do seem to prefer the guaranteed minimum quality of teaching that they know their students will experience from a prep course, and so generally could be seen to prefer students who avoid the self-study route.
It is also worth noting that your time spent at an SQE provider will include more than just learning the content for your academic course – you’ll also benefit from the close links many of them have with law firms already, the networking opportunities (both with other students and tutors), careers advisors, etc.
As already mentioned, self-studying for the SQE will require you to be someone with a great number of soft skills – such as independence, organisation, and consistency. However, your existing CV could also help point you in the right direction (either towards, or away from, self-study).
Those who have already worked in the legal profession (but obviously not as qualified lawyers) may have already developed a great deal of on-the-job legal knowledge that means they are more prepared than most for SQE exams, and so only need a slight top-up in knowledge that would make prep courses appear overly rigorous. These types of people include paralegals or chartered legal executives.
In short, choosing whether to self-study for the SQE is a decision which you must ultimately make based on your own individual circumstances – by weighing up the pros and cons that present themselves. As this article has highlighted, some of those points worthy of consideration include cost (largely a win for self-study), quality of learning (largely a win for prep courses) and career background/future goals. If you’re still struggling to decide, try to reach out to professionals in the industry to understand what they make of your options – finding trusted advice is always a good choice.
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