Will it happen? Won’t it happen? Yes, it’s finally happening! The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) plans to scrap the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) in favour of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). This has taken so long to come into fruition it’s almost tempting to dismiss the endless announcements and news stories as ‘it’ll never happen’ or ‘it’s not relevant to me’. Let’s be honest, as a topic it can be a little bit dry, so you’d be forgiven for leaving it to the SRA, university tutors, course providers and law firm graduate recruitment teams to agonise and squabble over.
But that’s simply no longer the case and, as the saying goes, if you snooze you lose, especially if you’re a recent graduate or paralegal, and considering self-funding the LPC.
Let me explain why all of this is such a big deal and how it may affect you. But first, brew yourself a cup of tea or coffee and let’s break down what all this means for you because some of what I’m about to discuss is a little bit complex, even for experts like myself!
Phasing out the LPC for the SQE
After years several lengthy consultations, the SRA has finally decided to push forward with the super-exam, officially known as the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), and even the global Covid-19 pandemic won’t get in the regulator’s way. That means that the process to phase out the LPC and GDL will finally get under way whether we like it or not. What’s more I predict the transitionary period set by the SRA to completely scrap the current regime is likely to be significantly shorter than the 11-year target set by the regulator.
Indeed, you need only ask some of the stalwarts of legal education who’ll tell you that back in the bygone days of the early 1990s when the market was readying itself for the birth of the LPC, which eventually replaced the now archaic Solicitors’ Finals, there was inevitably some push back then from various quarters of the legal profession. But the resistance soon passed and the LPC became the ‘new normal’. As such, I foresee the SQE to be no different and believe employers will quickly come on board. After all, without trying something new we potentially run the risk of being left behind and just like me I’m assuming you’d rather be a trailblazer?
SQE or LPC: that’s the question!
So very soon, I’m expecting the same for the SQE and believe it too will become the ‘new normal’ for a growing number of aspiring solicitors. With the clock rapidly counting down to the first set of assessments, which are scheduled for Autumn 2021, now is the ideal time to start seriously thinking about potentially applying for a place on an SQE prep course as an alternative to pursuing the traditional but extremely costly LPC route.
But what’s the difference, we hear you ask? Isn’t it safer to stick with a tried and tested method rather than go down a road that is not only less travelled, but is also yet to be fully built?
Why choose the SQE?
Just to recap, the SQE looks highly likely to be here to stay. But not only that, it’s a genuine game changer, particularly for the whopping 76% of aspiring solicitors who would have to self-fund their way through the qualification process.
Despite all the initial controversy attracted by the SQE from, let’s be honest, many corners of the legal profession, 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 to 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 out the playing field and closing the perennial gap between the number of students sitting the relevant compulsory assessments and available training contract places.
From an individual perspective, the SQE offers aspiring solicitors significantly more flexibility than the current regime because the LPC / training contract route is much more prescriptive with regards to in what order certain milestones must be completed before it’s possible to apply for admission to the roll. In other words, as things currently stand, students can only progress onto a two-year period of recognised training, a.k.a. 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, controversially, it has done away with the training contract as we currently know it 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 as set out in more details below. This, I believe, will bring some much needed hope for any students who have had previous failed attempts at securing a highly sought-after training contract offer and feel frustrated as their progression towards qualification is stalling or worse still come to a grinding halt. I also believe 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 City route simply because you’ll get your LPC fees paid.
So how does it all work?
Firstly, any students who will be graduating this summer or earlier, and are currently working as paralegals or indeed in any other jobs whether related to law or not are eligible to apply for an SQE prep course with a view to sitting the computer-based SQE1 exam in November 2021.
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.
Incidentally, the BARBRI SQE1 prep courses will be offered at various points throughout the year, leading up to the SQE1 exams (currently expected to be available twice a year), and the first of our courses is due to start in January 2021.
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 clearly a hugely attractive feature of the SQE because in essence you can start immediately to ‘bank’ any appropriate legal experience you gained during your 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.
So, if you’re currently working as a paralegal it arguably makes little or no sense to venture down the LPC and training contract route, which potentially means having to wait up to three calendar years before being eligible for a practising certificate (and don’t forget during some of this time you may not always be earning). In contrast, assuming you’re able to ‘bank’ some of the experience you’ve gained whilst paralegalling then pursuing the SQE route should in theory allow you to qualify as early as summer 2022.
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 on-line platform that places paralegals into law firms and in-house legal departments on an ad hoc basis.
Once you’ve successfully completed the SQE1 assessments you’ll be required to prepare for and sit SQE2. This, the final component of the new route to qualification, will use role play and some written work to test you on client interviewing; advocacy; case and matter analysis; legal research and written advice; and legal drafting.
BARBRI SQE Prep courses
BARBRI offers both tailored full and part-time SQE1 prep 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 you’re able to fit your studies around other commitments, which would ideally involve some paralegalling work and thus enable you to bank that all-important qualifying work experience and edge you closer to being admitted as a fully-fledged solicitor.
I’m genuinely excited by the enormous opportunities the SQE is likely to offer future generations of lawyers and ready for the starting shot to be fired. That’s because I’ve always seen myself as a trailblazer. I hope this blog has left you feeling the same way too.
Husnara Begum is a former lawyer-turned-legal journalist-turned career coach. She is the associate editor of careers & lifestyle website “CheekyLittleCareers.com” and also runs regular careers clinics for the Law Society. Through her work Husnara has gained extensive knowledge and insights into the challenges faced by aspiring solicitors when trying to secure training contracts.