The long awaited new route to qualification – the Solicitors Qualification Examination (SQEs) – is being implemented this year by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. It will become the new centralised way to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales and will eventually replace the current route.
The aim of the change is two-fold; to ensure that all solicitors being admitted are assessed consistently and to the same standard and also to develop new routes to qualification for those wishing to qualify as solicitors.
The traditional route to qualification
I have recently been a trainee with Rayden Solicitors and have just qualified earlier this month. I took the traditional route to qualification which consisted of several different stages of education and work experience. Firstly, I undertook a three year undergraduate degree and I then also had to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) course (known as the ‘law conversion’) because I graduated with a non-law degree. Those with a qualifying law degree do not need to complete this course. The GDL was followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) which is a compulsory course for anyone who wants to become a solicitor. Finally, I needed to complete a 2 year period of recognised training (a training contract) with a law firm and during this time pass the Professional Skills Course.
The new route to qualification
The SRA is introducing a new route to qualification as a solicitor. It requires the following:
- A degree in any subject;
- Passing both stages of the new Solicitors Qualifications Examinations;
- Two years of full time qualifying work experience; and
- Passing the SRA’s character and suitability requirements.
What is different?
The new route removes the GDL, LPC and PSC courses. Instead, it introduces two new standard examinations known as the Solicitors Qualifying Examinations (SQE’s) which need to be passed. Please see below for further information about the new examination content and format.
There is also no requirement to complete a ‘training contract’ with one law firm, but instead obtain 2 years of qualifying work experience. This is much more flexible and gives the opportunity to develop practical legal skills in different ways across different organisations or firms. Please see below for further details of what can be classed as qualifying work experience.
The overall cost of qualifying is also likely to be reduced. The combined cost for the SQEs is £3,980 (compared to a cost of roughly £12,000 for the LPC and PSC) although this doesn’t include training costs which will vary depending on which institution is chosen to study at. Legal training providers are in the process of developing courses to assist candidates in passing the SQEs.
What hasn’t changed?
To qualify using the new route, there is still the need for an undergraduate level degree (although this can now be in any subject). Also, as explained above, there is still a requirement for 2 years of work experience although the format of this is slightly different. Finally, anyone applying for admission as a solicitor once completing their degree, SQE exams and qualifying work experience must still be able to show that they are of satisfactory character and suitability.
The new examinations
The SRA has worked together with Kaplan (a professional education and training provider) to develop the new Solicitors Qualification Examinations. They will be standard exams for all candidates and will be centrally assessed. They are divided into two stages and candidates must pass stage 1 to be able to move on to stage 2.
Stage one assesses functioning legal knowledge as well as ethics and professional conduct. It consists of 2 examination papers both containing 180 multiple choice questions and each is 5 hours long. The assessment is closed book (meaning candidates cannot take any notes, books or study materials into the exams).
Stage 2 tests the professional skills required in practice such as client interviews, advocacy, case analysis, legal research and drafting. These areas are assessed over 5 half days as follows; written exams over 3 half days and oral exams over 2 half days. This stage involves 14 hours of exams in total.
What is ‘qualifying work experience’?
The qualifying work experience aspect will become much more flexible under the new route. It still requires 2 years of full time work but the experience can now be gained with up to 4 different employers across the 2 years. The work can be paid or unpaid and can include paralegal experience, time spent advising in a student law clinic, volunteering at a law centre or Citizens Advice Bureau or any placements undertaken during a degree.
There is also still the option to complete 2 years with just one employer in the traditional way.
It is important to note that law firms are still able to determine how they wish to offer training and how to accept any previous experience. It is thought that many firms will initially still require candidates to complete a 2 year period of qualifying work with the firm to qualify there.
All qualifying work experience will need to be signed off by a solicitor who will review the work and provide feedback. The SRA is giving more autonomy to employers in respect of the training but provide that the experience must offer a candidate the opportunity to develop the competencies and skills required in practice.
When does the new SQE route start?
The SRA is launching the new route from 1 September 2021 with the first SQE 1 assessment taking place in November 2021 and the first SQE 2 assessment taking place in April 2022. There will be two sittings of each SQE exam each calendar year.
What if you have already started the GDL or LPC or have already been offered a training contract?
The SRA is putting in place transitional arrangements for those who have already started the current route to qualification. These arrangements apply to anyone who, before 1 September 2021, has completed, started or accepted an offer of a place for a degree, the GDL or LPC or has secured a training contract. Anyone who falls within this group has until 31 December 2032 to qualify as a solicitor under the existing route but can also choose to qualify using the new route if they wish.