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Husnara Begum, editor & careers consultant

Drum roll please. The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) is finally upon us with many so-called ‘prep’ students already gearing up for the first set of assessments, scheduled for November 2021.

This new route to qualification, which officially came into force today (1 September 2021), will eventually result in the abolition of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Graduate Diploma in Law (this is the compulsory conversion course that non-law students must complete and more commonly known as the GDL). But that’s not it – training contracts are also being scrapped and will gradually be replaced with two years’ of work-based learning known as qualifying work experience (QWE).

From an individual perspective, the SQE arguably offers aspiring solicitors greater flexibility than the current regime because the LPC / training contract route is considered more prescriptive with regards to what order certain milestones must be completed before it’s possible to apply for admission to the roll. In other words, with the exception of a limited few, the outgoing pathway only enabled you to progress onto a training contract (assuming you’re even lucky enough to bag one) after successfully completing the LPC (and not to mention the GDL if you’re a non-law graduate).

In stark contrast, the new route is more flexible, because controversially it has done away with the training contract as we currently know it and allows you 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 detail below. This is likely to bring some much needed cheer and hope for any students who have had previous failed attempts at securing those highly-prized training contract offers and feel frustrated due to their progression towards qualification stalling or worse still coming to a grinding halt.

So how does it all work?

Firstly, some institutions are already running SQE prep courses in anticipation of the first set of exams scheduled for November (note: another change is the date for SQE exams are set in stone). New prep courses with varying start dates are cropping up all the time with a whole bunch of providers slowly starting to jump on the gravy train. Some law schools who have been dubbed ‘disrupters’ are going for the no frills approach charging cut price rates when compared to the cost of the LPC whilst their more well-established competitors are going for the bells and whistles approach. My advice is to do your homework and to thoroughly research providers before committing to anything, particularly during this transitional period when you can still choose between the LPC and SQE. For a full list of providers click here.

The SQE1 exam itself comprises two days of multiple choice questions to 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. Scroll down further for more details on the format of the SQE.

Secondly, though students who opt for the SQE will still be required to obtain two years’ full-time (or equivalent) QWE, there is a material 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 arguably another attractive feature of the SQE because in essence you can start to immediately ‘bank’ any appropriate legal experience you gain 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.

That said, I would strongly recommend any QWE you complete relates to the area of law your eventually want to qualify into. The same also applies to sectors and the types of organisation you want to join as a newly qualified solicitor.

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.

Note, much of the above is only really relevant for students who are considering self-funding the GDL, LPC or SQE prep courses. If you’re targeting larger commercial law firms that typically sponsor future trainee solicitors through their compulsory post-graduate studies you’ll find that during the current transitional period such employers will stipulate which route you’ll need to to take following the completion of your undergraduate degree. If in doubt, contact the graduate recruitment team at your short-listed firms and ask for clarification.

Format of the SQE

As already outlined above the SQE will be split into two stages: SQE1 and SQE2. Candidates are only allowed three attempts at each stage of the assessment. Both stages must be passed within six years.

SQE stage one

The first stage, SQE1, covers “functioning legal knowledge”. As well as testing your knowledge of the law, stage one exams also assess how as a solicitor you’d apply it to real-life scenarios.

SQE1 comprises two exams, each containing 180 multiple-choice questions, which test how you would apply your legal knowledge in real scenarios across different practice areas.

The first 180-question exam covers:

  • business law and practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • contract;
  • tort;
  • legal system of England and Wales; and
  • constitutional and administrative law, retained EU law and legal services.

The second exam covers:

  • property practice;
  • wills and the administration of estates;
  • solicitors accounts;
  • land law;
  • trusts; and
  • criminal law and practice.

Both parts of SQE1 will also include questions on ethics and professional conduct.

SQE stage two

SQE2 covers “core legal skills” and comprises both oral and written assessments. With a focus on the everyday skills needed to successfully practice as a solicitor, such as drafting and interviewing clients, means that it shares some common ground with LPC exams. SQE2 is ultimately designed to test whether your practical skills are at the standard required of a newly qualified solicitor.

SQE2 assesses the following six key skills:

  • client interviewing;
  • advocacy;
  • case and matter analysis
  • legal research
  • legal writing; and
  • legal drafting.

These skills are tested across five practice areas:

  • criminal practice;
  • dispute resolution;
  • property;
  • wills and the administration of estates; and
  • business practice.

SQE2 is made up of 16 practical exercises (four oral skills assessments and 12 written skills assessments) covering the five areas of law above. It is a standardised assessment set by an external provider, meaning all students sit the same exam. The 16 exercises are spread across multiple days, but result in one overall grade.

In theory, it’s not necessary to complete a prep course before sitting the SQE2 assessments. That said, two years’ QWE alone may not be sufficient to help you develop the full set of wide-ranging skills and knowledge needed to pass the 16 exercises, particularly as your work experience is unlikely to encompass all five of the practice areas being assessed. Therefore, you may wish to complete an SQE2 prep course with an employer or reputable course provider.

Where will SQE assessments take place?

SRA has designated Kaplan as the sole provider for the SQE assessments, which will be delivered in collaboration with Pearson VUE test centre across England and Wales and internationally. There will be multiple exam sittings throughout the year, providing flexibility to students, law schools and employers. For relevant dates and locations for SQE1 and SQE2 assessments click here.