The SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination) is the new route via which aspiring solicitors will qualify in England and Wales.
It is intended for both law graduates and non-law graduates seeking to be admitted as a solicitor or a lawyer in another jurisdiction looking to qualify as a UK solicitor, the SQE is the main way to do so. It is administered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA).
The SQE is comprised of two major assessments – SQE1 and SQE2 – and a mandatory two-year period of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) that tests your legal skills and legal knowledge. The only requirement in terms of timing is that you will need to take SQE1 before SQE2, as QWE can be undertaken at any point.
Once you have passed all of the SQE assessments and completed your period of QWE, you will then be a newly qualified solicitor, or NQ.
The new pathway was introduced in 2021 – we are currently in a phase where aspiring solicitors will often have a choice to make between completing the new SQE or old LPC (Legal Practice Course), although it should be noted that some law firms sponsoring via training contracts have already started insisting on SQE qualification. Officially, the LPC route will be completely eradicated by 2032, but in reality, it is likely to be phased out much sooner – for examples when law schools stop offering LPC prep courses (in line with firms stopping their LPC offers).
As you’ve probably guessed, the new route for qualifying as a solicitor was introduced primarily for the sake of increased flexibility. It certainly offers a less rigid path for those wishing to qualify by less traditional means, as has been outlined above. It has also been promoted as a more accessible alternative to the LPC due to this aforementioned flexibility and lower costs – although the extent to which the SQE actually will deliver on these promises and improve access to traditionally underrepresented groups remains a subject of some debate.
The SQE is, as already mentioned, split into SQE1 and SQE2. It’s worth going into some extra detail here on what exactly these exams involve.
SQE1 comprises ‘functioning legal knowledge’, and is made up of two exams. Each exam is multiple choice, and features 180 questions in total (each). The first exam’s content is as follows:
The second exam’s content is as follows:
SQE2 is quite different – this is a far more practical set of examinations, focusing on ‘core legal skills’ as applied through oral and written assessment. The kind of skills being tested include writing attendance notes, legal research, legal writing/drafting, advocacy and more. These skills are tested in the context of five practice areas:
There are some criteria set out by the SRA regarding who can take SQE1 and who can take SQE2, and there are different requirements for both stages, depending on where you are in your legal career.
Most of those in the UK who are pursuing a career as a solicitor will be looking at the SQE after completing university, but you may have completed a degree-equivalent qualification, or even already be qualified in another country.
While the vast majority of aspiring solicitors will go on to complete the SQE in the near future, there are some exemptions worth noting. For example, if you’ve already qualified in another jurisdiction, you are sometimes able to request that the SRA waives the need for you to complete these exams, as can be done via their online form.
In the interests of transparency, it is worth noting here that SQE pass rates have been relatively low so far. For example, in January 2023, the SQE1 pass rate was, according to the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority, who are responsible for these overarching changes), 51%. However, the pass rates are thought to be significantly higher for those taking standardised prep courses, or those supported via training contracts. It has also been noted that having a stronger academic record (e.g. having achieved a first at university) drastically affects your chance of passing, too. However, there is no major cause for concern here – pass rates are expected to rise over the next few years as providers/examination centres iron out any discrepancies, and a good provider will continue to prepare you well for the SQE.
Once your SQE studies (and possibly PGDL studies before that) are completed, you’ll need to secure two years’ worth of qualifying work experience (if you haven’t already). It’s worth considering what now counts in a little more detail since, as previously mentioned, the requirements are a little more flexible now.
Your QWE must be completed within a maximum of four organisations, although there is no minimum time that has to be spent at each.
A range of different types of legal work experience are accepted, including volunteering at a law clinic, working as a paralegal, a traditional training contract, and more. The SRA simply asks that a qualified solicitor at your host organisation (there are some exceptions if that’s not possible, but it usually is) signs off your placement as eligible for QWE.
The QWE doesn’t require (as was previously the case with a training contract after the LPC, for example) specific exposure to parts of law like contentious and non-contentious work, or specific practice areas. Remember, however, that your sponsoring organisation is likely to have some rules of its own on what type of work experience you’ll need to complete (for instance a large City firm will often require trainees to do a minimum of one or two seats in corporate work).
The SQE was introduced as a more accessible path into law than the previous LPC path. As a result, there are different options you can choose from when it comes to preparing for the assessments.
You can choose to prepare by yourself by following the guidance and information available on the SRA website. It’s worth noting that, if you choose this option, you will have to seek out your own resources and won’t have any teaching of relevant materials. If you would like to prepare for the SQE individually, you may, for example, want to seek out others studying for the qualification and form a study group. This option gives you the flexibility of studying for as much or little time as you need, including doing QWE when it best suits you.
The more popular choice is similar to the LPC; taking an SQE prep course. These courses are usually under a year and offer supported teaching on the different areas involved in the assessments. There are other advantages, such as the option to select a course that includes an LLM. Another benefit is that, for example, the University of Law guarantees four weeks of QWE to those taking its SQE Masters courses.
You may also want to spread out your QWE – there are benefits to developing some on-the-job experience before taking the assessments.
Training contracts are still available at leading law firms, so if you opt to apply for the two-year training contract, it is likely you will need to take the SQE. As part of transitional arrangements, anyone who had not accepted a place on a qualifying law course by September 21st 2021 will not be eligible to take the legal practice course (LPC). If you have a non-law degree, you may still be required to undertake a conversion course (PGDL).
Prep courses for the PGDL are relatively well-established now, but vary widely in their costs. It’s worth remembering, too, that these are not officially Masters courses, and as such are not eligible to take out a government student loan for (although individual providers will often offer a range of financial assistance including scholarships and bursaries, which you should research carefully on their websites). All of this applies to the SQE, too. In short, though, you’ll be looking at spending between approximately £9,000 and £12,000 if attending one of the well-known London providers (namely University of Law, BPP or City University), or anywhere down to around £7,000 if attending a PGDL course at a non-London university.
The prep courses typically range from between 8 months (full-time study) and almost two years (part-time study), although those on training contracts will often be made to participate in the former. You will also see LLMs (Masters of Law) advertised in places, which are more academically specialised and can package together a number of qualifications, including PGDLs and SQEs.
In terms of cost for the SQE, you’ll need to pay to enter exams (currently £1,622 for SQE1 and £2,493 for SQE2, meaning £4,115 altogether), and then for a prep course (again, a large range, but expect to pay between £9,000 and £13,000 in total for SQE1 and SQE2 prep courses combined). Although clearly still expensive, this is generally seen as cheaper than the previous LPC route.
These prep courses (for both SQE1 and SQE2 combined) will often last between 1 year and 2 years (full-time vs part-time study). The format/style of teaching on offer is also highly dependent on the provider you choose.
The SQE1 and SQE2 cost different amounts and, although there are multiple assessments in each exam, you will need to pay for each exam in one go.
The SQE1 costs £1,622, and payment for both FLK1 and FLK2 will be taken at the same time, but you will need to book your dates separately.
The SQE2 costs £2,493 and you can book both the oral assessment and written exam at the same time.
You can pay online or, if you’re taking a SQE preparation course, your training provider may have given you a voucher you can use.
You could also be eligible for one of the SQE funding options available.
In short, the SQE will have a significant impact on the qualification route for solicitors in England and Wales. The range of flexibility on offer is extraordinary – but do remember that your experience may still end up being shaped by a number of other factors dictating your path, such as a sponsoring firm or organisation. While the entire route does look very different now, and careful research is required, students with the determination to succeed will definitely find that the end goal of qualifying as a solicitor is certainly within reach.
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