What the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) means for aspiring lawyers

Dan Wren

From 1 September 2021, the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will transform the way that individuals enter the legal profession. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has designed this new system to make the legal industry more accessible to aspiring solicitors, removing unnecessary financial and practical obstacles.

This includes removing the need to study expensive courses like the Legal Practice Course (LPC), which can cost up to £16,750. Such measures have traditionally restricted the profession to those who can afford it, gain sponsorship from law firms or those willing to accumulate large debts.

In order to become a solicitor under the SQE route, you will need to satisfy the following requirements:

  1. A degree in any subject or equivalent qualification / work experience
  2. Two years’ qualifying work experience in a legal environment
  3. Successful completion of the two SQE assessment stages (SQE1 & SQE2) 
  4. Approval under the SRA character and suitability criteria

Each of these requirements are explained in more detail below. 

 

What degree or equivalent qualification must you have to qualify for the SQE route?

Before you can apply for the SQE, you must have a degree or equivalent qualification. This degree does not have to be a law degree, but it must be at least a level 6 degree under the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications. Therefore a university degree in any subject is sufficient. Although, a law degree may help to better prepare you for the examination stage of the SQE.  

Alternatively, you can apply for the SQE with a regulated/accredited qualification or apprenticeship at level 6 or above approved by the government departments of England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Again, any apprenticeship at the required level would qualify, however a legal apprenticeship would best prepare candidates for their career.

Non-UK qualifications may also be considered equivalent, subject to a UK Statement of Comparability

 

What constitutes two years’ qualifying work experience? 

The SRA has stated that aspiring solicitors must undertake two years of work experience in a legal environment before they are able to qualify through the SQE route. The scope of this work experience is far more flexible than the existing definition, as it does not prescribe specific requirements that must be satisfied and evidenced.

Qualifying work experience can be any experience of legal services that allows the candidate to develop some or all of the key competencies listed in the Statement of Solicitor Competence. This includes:

  • ethics, professionalism and judgment
  • technical legal practice
  • working with other people
  • managing themselves and their work

The work experience itself can be gained in one continuous two year period or broken up. It can be paid or unpaid, within a single organisation or up to four different organisations, in England and Wales or abroad. Some examples include a degree placement, working as a paralegal, undertaking a training contract at a law firm or volunteering at a law clinic/legal advice charity.

Your work experience must be signed off by a Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (COLP) or a solicitor of England and Wales working in the organisation. A solicitor working outside the organisation can also sign off the work experience, provided that they have direct knowledge of the legal work being carried out. The COLP or solicitor must sign off on:

  • the details of the work experience carried out
  • the fact that the work experience provided the opportunity for some or all of the key competences listed in the Statement of Solicitor Competence 
  • the fact that the candidates’ conduct throughout the work experience did not raise concerns about their character and suitability to qualify as a solicitor

Crucially, the COLP or solicitor does not need to sign off on whether each prescribed competency has been met. This will be assessed through examination. 

 

How will you be examined during the SQE process? 

There are two stages of assessments, the SQE1 and SQE2. Collectively, these assessments examine the key skills required to be a solicitor.

SQE1, which will first become available in autumn 2021, tests your Functioning Legal Knowledge (FLK) through a series of multiple choice assessments totalling 10 hours. The assessments cover the following legal subjects divided into two sections:

  1. Business Law and Practice, Dispute Resolution, Contract, Tort, Constitutional and Administrative Law, Legal System of England and Wales, EU Law and Legal Services
  2. Property Practice, Wills and Administration of Estates, Solicitors Accounts, Land Law, Trusts, Criminal Law and Practice

The FLK assessments are all closed book, and will ask you to select the most appropriate and effective legal advice out of a series of options. Some questions may combine elements of two or more of the different subjects listed above. Taxation, Ethics and Professional Conduct will also be examined across the two assessments. For more information on FLK, see the SQE1 Assessment Specification on the SRA website.

SQE2, which will first become available in autumn 2022, tests your legal skills. This stage of assessments is divided into two sections:

  1. SQE2 Oral covers advocacy and interviewing and attendance note/legal analysis
  2. SQE2 Written covers legal research, writing, drafting and case and matter analysis

This stage involves more roleplay and practical assessments totalling 14 hours. Candidates will need a basic understanding of key legal principles, as examined in SQE1 FLK assessments above, for these skill assessments. For more information see the SQE2 Assessment Specification on the SRA website. 

 

What are the character and suitability criteria? 

Entering the legal profession requires a high degree of integrity and strict compliance with the law. Before the SRA admits you to the roll of solicitors, you must prove that you are eligible to become a solicitor. The SRA examines this through their character and suitability criteria. Therefore, you must disclose any criminal records or evidence of dishonest, violent or discriminatory behaviour, whether in the UK or overseas, to the SRA alongside your application. 

Failure to disclose any issues with your character and suitability may result in your application to qualify being rejected. The SRA will conduct their own investigation into your character and suitability, so disclosing this evidence may help to demonstrate honesty and rehabilitation on your part. 

 

What transitional arrangements are in place for current law students?

The SQE will be introduced in autumn 2021, with the intention of replacing the current route to qualification through the LPC and a training contract. Due to the complex nature of this overhaul, there are a number of transitional arrangements in place to cover a variety of situations. These arrangements apply to individuals who have commenced, completed or accepted a non-refundable offer for any of the following:

  • Law degree
  • Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or Common Professional Examination (CPE)
  • Legal Practice Course (LPC)
  • Training contract 

If you fall into this category, you will be permitted to qualify under the current route until 31 December 2032. 

Individuals who have already completed the LPC, but seek to qualify under the SQE route, may be able to gain an exemption to SQE1, which covers the same material. Therefore they will only need to complete two years qualifying work experience and pass the SQE2.

 

How much will the SQE cost?

One of the main goals of the SQE overhaul is to reduce the financial burden of qualification. The current fees for the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) can total over £30,000. Under the new system, the total fee for taking both SQE assessments will be £3,980. These fees can be broken down to:

  • SQE1 – £1,558 for ten hours of examinations
  • SQE2 – £2,422 for 14 hours of written and oral assessments

These costs cover examination fees only. You can choose to undertake a course from an SQE training provider at an additional fee or prepare for the exams yourself.

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