How will the Solicitors Qualifying Exam change the process of becoming a solicitor?
1. How will the Solicitors Qualifying Exam change the process of becoming a solicitor?
In short, the Solicitors Qualification Exam (SQE) is the legal profession’s equivalent to the ‘big bang’. Also known as the ‘super-exam’, this much anticipated new route to qualification is going to radically alter the way aspiring solicitors become eligible for admission to practice in England and Wales.
In case you don’t already know, the current system works as follows:
- Academic stage – Qualifying law degree or a law conversion course, typically referred to as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
- Vocational stage – The Legal Practice Course (LPC) is designed to provide a bridge between academic study and training in a law firm or in-house legal department.
- Work-based learning – Officially known as a ‘period of recognised training’ and comprising of a two-year long paid placement with an employer but more commonly known as a training contract or traineeship.
- Admission – Apply to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for admission as a solicitor in England and Wales.
The SQE is set to be introduced on 1 September 2021 (subject to approval by the Legal Services Board, which is expected later this year). Then, after a transition period, will eventually result in an entire abolition of the GDL, LPC and most significantly the training contract. Taking their place will be the following route to qualification:
- Undergraduate stage – Degree or equivalent – all aspiring solicitors must either have an undergraduate degree, or equivalent experience, to study at degree level (for instance by completing a degree level apprenticeship).
- SQE Stage One (SQE1) – Both law and non-law graduates alike must sit and pass SQE1, which will mainly assess your legal knowledge through multiple-choice questions. You must pass both SQE1 exams before progressing to stage two.
- SQE Stage Two (SQE2) – SQE2 assesses your legal skills through practical examinations and assessments.
- Qualifying work experience -Would-be solicitors will still need to complete at least two years’ full-time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience but unlike the current system this can be gained before, during or after completing both stages of the SQE.
- Admission – Having met the SRA’s character and suitability requirements, apply to the SRA for admission as a solicitor in England and Wales.
2. What are the key differences between the GDL/LPC and SQE?
The single most important differentiator is that the SQE is a centralised and standardised exam, which is divided into two stages and will be run by Kaplan. In stark contrast, both the GDL and LPC are ‘courses’ that culminate in students sitting internal exams that are set by their individual providers or law schools. Another key point worth noting is that SQE does not contain any electives, which have often been used by the major law schools as some of their key USPs.
SQE1 will cover legal knowledge and procedure, whilst SQE2 is designed to test practical skills and legal knowledge.
Since the SQE will eventually be replacing both the GDL and LPC, law and non-law students alike will have to sit the SQE before being eligible for admission to the roll of solicitors.
Though there is currently no rule stipulating that law grads must complete a prep course in advance of taking the SQE, the general expectation is that most are likely to opt-in for some additional learning to ensure they are exam-ready.
One of the SRA’s rationales for introducing the SQE is to ensure consistency and higher standards across the legal profession – the idea being that all aspiring solicitors will enter the profession after studying the same subjects and having taken exactly the same rigorous centralised exams. This new route also expands the QWE opportunities, whereas before the options available were the training contract, or ‘equivalent means’, which was difficult to prove.
Another attractive feature of the SQE, which I believe is likely to benefit self-funding students, is that it will inevitably increase competition amongst training course providers and provide for more affordable and flexible options for students.
Indeed, I believe this new route will offer innovative forward-thinking institutions, like BARBRI, that use technology creatively to disrupt the dominance of existing providers. This will, in turn, offer students, who often feel railroaded into taking the hugely expensive ‘LPC gamble’, more choice and greater flexibility. We feel we can contribute something new to the market, using 50 years’ experience gained through designing and running market-leading prep courses for multiple choice testing for the U.S. bar exams, using tried and tested teaching methods that can easily be transferred to our SQE provision.
3. What are the key dates I should be aware of and how long will it all take?
The SQE will officially be introduced on 1 September 2021 with the first set of computer-based assessments of SQE1 scheduled for November 2021. These will be held twice a year, in May and November.
In anticipation of this, the first of BARBRI’s SQE1 Prep courses are due to start in January 2021 for the 40-week part-time course with others planned at various points throughout the year and timed to fit perfectly around future assessment dates. Enrolment onto our January 2021 prep course will be coming soon so please watch this space!
Unlike traditional academic institutions and universities, which operate around a classic academic calendar, BARBRI is a much more agile with its course provision, offering close alignment to assessment dates. In other words, we will set course start dates by working backwards from actual exam dates.
SQE course length options
Law graduates can choose between our flexible full-time (10-week) or part-time (20-week) courses. There will also be an extended part-time option of 40 weeks available for non-law graduates or anyone who wishes to take longer for preparation.
To prepare for the first SQE1 of November 2021, there will be three course options available:
- 40 week part-time course – starting January 2021
- 20 week part-time course – starting June 2021
- 10 week full-time course – starting August 2021
It is worth nothing that there will be a transitionary period lasting up 2032, which will give students who have already started on the academic pathway to become a solicitor the option to continue qualifying as solicitors in the traditional way. That said, I expect the overlap between the two routes to be much shorter than the 11 years allowed for by the SRA.
Finally, if you are an overseas qualified lawyer or foreign student and trying to decide between the SQE and the existing Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme (QLTS) then you should also note that the last sitting of the Multiple Choice Test (MCT) that makes up Part 1 of the QLTS will be in July 2021 and for those who have passed the MCT prior to the introduction of the SQE, there will be a transitionary period of one year to complete Part 2 Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSC), by May 2022.
4. What is the format of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam?
The SQE is split into two parts. SQE1 (Functioning Legal Knowledge) is a computer-based test, including 360 multiple-choice questions split over two papers of 180 questions each. The subjects covered by SQE1 are as follows:
- Business Law and Practice; Dispute Resolution; Contract; Tort; Legal System of England and Wales; Constitutional and Administrative Law and EU Law and Legal Services; and
- Property Practice; Wills and the Administration of Estates; Solicitors Accounts; Land Law; Trusts; Criminal Law and Practice
with Ethics and Professional Conduct examined pervasively.
Meanwhile, SQE2 (Practical Legal Skills Assessments) will use role play and some written work to test you on client interviewing with linked attendance note; advocacy; case and matter analysis; legal research and written advice; legal drafting; and legal writing.
The SRA has estimated that, in total, students will have 25 hours of assessment, including written tests, computer-based assessments and simulations such as mock client interviews.
5. How realistic is it to combine Solicitors Qualifying Exam preparation with a job?
This is arguably one of the most attractive features of the SQE. Under this new system it will be possible for you to gain so-called two years’ Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) either before, during and indeed after you have sat and passed the SQE. Designed to be as flexible as possible, it enables aspiring lawyers to obtain QWE in one block with a single employer or in stages with up to four different placements. QWE could include a placement during your law degree; working in a law clinic; or voluntary work in a charitable organisation as well as paid paralegal roles.
To facilitate this, or to allow our students to work in non-legal jobs simply to cover basic living costs, BARBRI’s SQE Prep courses will be available on both a full and part-time basis and content will be delivered primarily online.
6. Who is the most likely to benefit from this new route to legal qualification?
One of the SRA’s key drivers for introducing the SQE is to boost diversity in the legal profession by addressing the damaging bottle neck that has been created by the volume of students on the LPC often outstripping the number of training contract places.
The flexibility of this new approach reduces this risk and therefore makes it more attractive for students who are self-funding their studies as they can ‘mix and match’ their periods of study with blocks of work experience, which can be ‘banked’ and counted towards the required two years’ of qualifying work experience.
7. How is the BARBRI learning methodology unique?
The way BARBRI’s SQE Prep courses will be delivered include a number of unique features including:
- flexible full and part-time study options;
- blended learning that combines bespoke, flexible online study plans and video lectures;
- exam-focused content; and
- check-ins with a personal Learning Coach who is a qualified lawyer.
8. Is the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam more or less expensive than the current routes into qualification?
BARBRI is yet to announce its fees for SQE prep courses so it would not be appropriate to give a direct comparison other than to say they are expected to be much lower than the costs associated with the LPC.
Also, please note in addition to the prep course fee you will also need to budget for the cost of the SQE assessments themselves. According to the SRA, the fees are broken down as follows:
- SQE1 (written and computer-based assessments) – £1,558 + VAT
- SQE2 (practical assessments) – £2,422 + VAT
These are payable directly to the exam provider, Kaplan.
9. How long would the process of qualification under the Solicitors Qualifying Exam take?
If you are already graduated and have the necessary amount of work experience to ‘bank’ as your QWE and you are able to pass the two stages one after the other, it is possible to complete the process of qualification within one year with full-time preparation and approximately 18 months with part-time study.
10. What happens if I fail the Solicitors Qualifying Exam? How many times can I re-sit?
Firstly, you shouldn’t worry as you can have three attempts at passing each SQE1 assessment. Secondly, to offer you a bit more extra reassurance we will offer our students the BARBRI Guarantee. This means that a student who enrols onto one of the prep courses and does not pass the exam can enrol onto their next course at no additional charge, for an extra chance to prepare and pass the exam.