This new exam is the route that all new solicitor applicants in England and Wales have to take from 2021 onwards. The SQE will need to be taken in conjunction with a minimum of two years of qualifying work experience with a law firm. Applicants are also required to meet the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
There are a number of differences between the SQE and the old-style courses of LPC and GDL. Whilst the move to the new system isn’t completed yet, it’s advisable to familiarise yourself with the SQE as you are likely to come in contact with it to some degree in the near future.
This article will walk you through the various changes you can expect to see with the new SQE, including the topics that are covered in the examinations and how you can prepare for the SQE assessments.
SQE vs LPC and GDL
After several long years of consultations, the SRA has decided to push forward with the super-exam, officially known as the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). That means that the process to phase out the LPC and GDL has finally got underway and will soon be completely replaced by the new SQE route.
Students who began a law degree, LPC or GDL prior to September 2021 are able to continue with their current qualifications until they are completely fazed out in 2032. However, from this point on, all students will have to pass the same exams in the SQE before they can qualify as a solicitor.
Let’s take a further look at the changes that this will mean for prospective solicitors.
What are the differences between the SQE, LPC and GDL?
The main difference between the SQE, LPC and GDL is that the SQE is made up of two exams, whilst the LPC and GDL are courses that feature examinations.
Previously, students would sit several individual exams that related to specific topics or career aspirations. This means that there were various routes that applicants could take in their studies. However, the SRA has now standardised the SQE so that every student must pass the same exams and complete the same amount of work experience, no matter if they have a qualifying law degree or are non-law graduates. The old system meant that non-law graduates could only progress through the GDL whilst law graduates took the LPC route.
The SQE can also work out cheaper than the LPC and GDL, which could cost upwards of £15,000. Currently, applicants must pay a total fee of £3,980 to sit both the SQE1 and SQE2, although this excludes the cost of an SQE preparation course and other studying materials.
Although applicants don’t have to take a preparation course to sit the SQE, the sheer amount of topics and information in the exams mean that taking a prep course can greatly improve your chances of passing the first time. The cost of the SQE is just one incentive to pass the exams as quickly as possible, as well as the speed at which students want to progress through their application. Although the SQE can initially seem cheaper than the alternatives, the cost can soon increase upon multiple attempts and a prolonged period of study.
Another major difference between SQE and the older qualification methods is the method of gaining work experience. Solicitors who want to qualify through the SQE must complete two years of qualifying work experience, which can be completed at up to four different legal organisations. Previous work experience can also be counted towards the two years if it meets the set criteria.
The LPC and GDL, on the other hand, requires most students to complete a two-year training contract at a single organisation or firm, which can be difficult to secure due to the high demand. Training contracts can only be offered by a firm or organisation that are authorised to work with trainee solicitors.
What are the benefits of the SQE?
The SQE is a genuine game-changer, particularly for the whopping 76% of aspiring solicitors who would have to self-fund their way through the qualification process. The SQE can often work out cheaper than the previous examination styles, especially as many students qualify for a scholarship or loan.
Despite all the initial controversy attracted by the proposed introduction of the SQE, this whole new pathway to qualification for solicitors is finally starting to gain traction. It’s also winning favour amongst many expert commentators who advocated a radical shake-up of the legal education system. The SQE will ensure future generations of lawyers all meet the same consistently high standards of core competencies expected by their clients.
Those in favour of the SQE also believe that it will boost diversity in the legal profession, by levelling the playing field and closing the perennial gap between the number of students sitting the relevant compulsory assessments and available training contracts offered by law firms.
From an individual perspective, the SQE offers aspiring solicitors significantly more flexibility than the current regime because the LPC and training contract route have a specific order that certain milestones must be completed before it’s possible to apply for admission to the roll. In other words, students studying via the old system could only progress onto a two-year period of recognised training, such as a training contract (assuming you’re even lucky enough to bag one in the first place) after successfully completing the LPC.
The new approach is far more flexible because it has done away with the training contract and allows aspiring solicitors to gain work-based experience either in one block over two years, or split it into stages with up to four different organisations.
This offers hope for any students who have had previous failed attempts at securing a highly sought-after training contract. Scrapping the traditional training contract and allowing aspiring solicitors to ‘mix and match’ their studies with blocks of work experience will make non-commercial law firms more attractive and discourage some to pursue the bigger firms simply because they could get their LPC fees paid for.
How does the SQE work?
There are two exams that make up the SQE assessments – the SQE1 and SQE2. Both exams aim to test applicants’ legal skills in core practice areas, as well as their overall working legal knowledge. Some of the areas that are covered include business law, criminal law and dispute resolution, which are based on practical legal research.
SQE1, which comprises two days of multiple-choice exams, will test you on both substantive and procedural law (and covers the core subjects currently taught on LLB and LPC courses) and requires you to demonstrate the application of these fundamental legal principles. The first exam features two 180 multi-choice tests which must be completed in a single examination window.
Incidentally, the BARBRI SQE1 prep courses are offered at various points throughout the year leading up to the SQE1 exams, which take place twice a year.
Once you’ve successfully completed the SQE1 assessments, you will be required to prepare for and sit the SQE2. This, the final component of the new route to qualification, uses both written and oral assessments, including role-play and written assessments to test you on client interviewing; advocacy; case and matter analysis; legal research and written advice; and legal drafting.
The SQE2 consists of 16 practical exams, including 12 written skill assessments and four oral skills assessments. These exercises take place over several days and focus on areas such as client interviewing, advocacy and legal research.
Secondly, though students who opt for the SQE route will still be required to obtain two years’ full-time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience, there’s a stark difference to the LPC route because this new method allows work-based learning to be gained before, during or after you sit the relevant assessments.
This is an attractive feature of the SQE because students can immediately start to ‘bank’ any appropriate legal experience they have gained during their undergraduate and/or gap years, including time spent on a placement during a law degree; working in a legal clinic; at a voluntary or charitable organisation such as a Citizen Advice Bureau or law clinic; working as a paralegal; or on a training contract.
To take advantage of this new flexible route into qualifying and to give self-funding students opportunities to gain qualifying experience that pays a salary, BARBRI has entered into an innovative collaboration with F-LEX, an online platform that places paralegals into law firms and in-house legal departments on an ad hoc basis.
BARBRI SQE prep courses
BARBRI offers both tailored full and part-time SQE preparation courses, which are primarily offered online with a 1:1 Learning Coach. Their video lectures, workbooks and practice lectures will help you to build knowledge over time. Their part-time course lasts for 40 weeks and is deliberately structured so that you’re able to fit your studies around other commitments, which would ideally involve some paralegal work or other voluntary work such as pro bono. This will enable you to bank that all-important qualifying work experience and edge you closer to being admitted as a fully-fledged solicitor.
The prep course for the first assessment, SQE1, costs £1,558, whilst the SQE2 costs £2,422. This is a set fee for all applicants, which means that candidates studying for the SQE pay a standard fee as opposed to the LPC, which could vary.
Candidates are only allowed to sit the SQE three more times in a six-year period. The cost of resits, which can come to £1,558 for SQE1 and £2,422 to resit SQE2, along with the extra time are just some of the reasons that it is advisable to properly prepare for the SQE before sitting the exams.
The SQE is known as a super-exam as it consolidates all of the examinations that candidates need to complete in order to become qualified solicitors. Whereas the old systems of LPC and GDL consisted of various exams, the SQE is the standard test provided by the SRA that gives both law and non-law graduates an equal chance to qualify.
Students who are already studying to become a solicitor via the LPC and GDL routes have until 2032 to complete their course before the SQE is completely implemented. Candidates that begin their studies after September 2021 will have to take the SQE to qualify as a solicitor. They must pass the SQE1 before they are able to sit the SQE2 and candidates must also pass the SRAs character and suitability requirements.
Applicants are also expected to complete a mandatory two years of qualifying work experience before they are able to complete the SQE process. This can be completed at up to four different organisations or firms and can include previous work experience, should it meet the necessary guidelines.