Last week saw the dawn of a new era in the legal profession as the first candidates sat the new ‘super exam’ to qualify as a solicitor. The tried and tested route to becoming a solicitor in England and Wales is gradually being replaced by a new regime called the Solicitors Qualifying Exam – or more snappily, the SQE.
Here at the University of Law we have been running preparatory courses for the SQE since earlier this year and our first candidates including some of our apprentices sat for the first time last week.
Under the current route to qualifying as a solicitor you must complete a qualifying law degree or the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) conversion course, followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Upon successful completion of the LPC, you would spend two years in a law firm as a trainee prior to being admitted as a solicitor.
In contrast, under the new system you must be a graduate in any discipline, and successfully pass two central assessments set by the SRA.
SQE 1 includes the foundations of legal knowledge tested by multiple choice questions, and SQE 2 tests legal skills. You must also undertake two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE) prior to admission.
According to the SRA, the SQE will mean everyone meets the same consistent standards at the point they become a solicitor. In the system as it stands today, different providers have their own courses through which students can get the necessary qualifications to begin a training contract.
Once the SQE is fully in place, everyone will have to sit the same exams before they qualify as a solicitor, theoretically ensuring they’ll all have the same basic knowledge and skills. The SRA also hopes to bring more diversity to the legal profession, by offering more different ways of becoming a solicitor and encouraging applicants from non-traditional backgrounds.
The SRA’s Statement of Solicitor Competence sets out what solicitors need to be able to do to perform their role effectively. This statement of competence is supported by a Statement of Legal Knowledge and a Threshold Standard, both of which shows the standards for practicing and using the title of solicitor. Combined, these documents provide everyone with a clear indication of what they can expect from their solicitor.
The good news for lawyers and clients alike is that these exacting standards are what the SQE assessments will be testing and successful candidates will be demonstrating.
Will the SQE be enough to prepare for practice?
However, according to a recent survey, the majority of law firms think the SQE will not be enough to prepare students for legal practice. Forty-three graduate recruitment and learning and development (L&D) professionals at City law firms took part in Legal Cheek‘s exclusive SQE survey in association with The University of Law.
The main concern among law firms appears to be that the new centralised route to qualification doesn’t cover enough legal knowledge and students will require a more thorough course to fully prepare them for their training contracts or qualifying work experience (QWE). Almost three-quarters surveyed (70%) responded this way.
Some 19% of respondents said they thought passing SQE1 and SQE2 will be sufficient as long as students do so before they start their training. Only 12% thought passing SQE1 will be sufficient for students to start their training and SQE2 can then prepare them for on-the-job learning during this period.
The SQE covers the basic foundations of legal knowledge. Passing SQE 1 and 2 alone will not be enough for many law firms who will expect students to have also studied additional content – such as currently covered in the LPC electives – which is relevant to their practice areas.
These might include, for example, corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, employment law and intellectual property. Different firms will have different bespoke requirements for their trainees, so keep in mind what your dream firm might require when you’re gearing up for the SQE.
Will the new super exam make becoming a solicitor easier and more accessible?
Providing a level playing field, assessing every candidate to the same standard regardless of training or prior achievement, fairly will hopefully give students the same opportunities regardless of their background.
The introduction of the SQE may help alleviate a persistent problem in the legal profession: growing numbers of LPC graduates failing to secure a relatively small number of training contracts. Having a more flexible approach to qualifying work experience may help tackle the training contract bottleneck. This may reduce the risk of talented people getting stuck in the qualification process. The creation of a more competitive training market, where people have more choice and more opportunities to earn and learn, may lead to more affordable options than in the current admission route.
How can students and the lawyers of the future prepare themselves for the new route to becoming a solicitor?
I would recommend students study a rigorous preparation course of training either online or face-to-face for both SQE 1 and SQE 2, with a well-established university provider. The.University of Law has a variety of programmes available to support students to exam success on the SQE.
They include a Postgraduate Diploma in Law which acts as a replacement for the GDL; and a master’s degree in law which combines rigorous preparation for both SQE 1 and 2 with the option to study the additional legal and business content required by many law firms.
All our SQE programmes here at the University of Law will be available in both face-to-face and online modes, and all our highly experienced tutors are qualified solicitors or barristers. We use learning analytics to personalise students’ education and guarantee exam success, as well as an innovative and unique intelligent revision tool to help them practice multiple choice questions and consolidate knowledge. We also offer pre-study diagnostic testing for both SQE 1 and 2, and additional learning analytics to support student performance and engagement – allowing tutors to spot ‘red flags’ and trends early in the learning process.
LPC or SQE?
Although the SQE will start from 2021, anyone who starts (or has started) the GDL, LPC or a law degree before autumn 2021 can still follow the old route to qualification. The SRA expects the old route to be fully phased out by 2032.
Many students who we speak with at the University of Law prefer the certainty of the LPC which is a tried and tested route to qualification as a solicitor and many students will prefer to stick with the current route. Some major firms have confirmed that they will move to focus on SQE graduates in the coming years, but the LPC will remain a valid qualification and both routes will have their respective advantages.
Advice for students preparing for the SQE?
My strong recommendation is to choose a training provider with a track record in preparing students to qualify as a solicitor – you will need significant training, coaching and support to pass the SQE . The University of Law has trained more qualified solicitors in England and Wales than any other provider and we are confident that our SQE programmes will set you on the road to success and realise your ambitions.
Professor Peter Crisp, pro vice-chancellor at The University of Law