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An introduction to the Solicitors Qualifying Exams (SQE) and what it means for the legal industry

With popularity of the newly established Solicitors Qualifying Exams (SQE) rising, the number of soon-to-be solicitors completing the Legal Practice Course (LPC) is expected to gradually decline. Yes, the LPC is anticipated to remain a viable route for several years, but what does this prominent change mean for future solicitors and the law firms looking to recruit them?

 

The LPC vs the SQE

 

Since 1993, the LPC has presented law graduates with the opportunity to apply their legal knowledge in a ‘real-life’ setting.

 

The LPC is the vocational stage of training which can be split into two parts – core modules and electives, both assessed through a range of oral and written exams. It works in conjunction with a training contract, whereby practical skills are exercised under the supervision of qualified solicitors.

 

In September 2021, the newer SQE route was introduced with the aim of providing a more standardised and affordable method of qualifying.

 

Similarly to the LPC, the SQE can be split into two parts – SQE1 and SQE2, which offer a combination of knowledge-based and practical-based learning. Rather than progressing to a training contract, the SQE requires a minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience for admission to the roll of solicitors.

 

What does this mean for the next generation of solicitors?

 

Although the SQE route is already proving to be a popular option for future aspiring solicitors, some will be pleased to know that the LPC route will be available until at least 2026 for those who have completed, started, or accepted an offer for their GDL, MA Law conversion course or training contract (by September 2021). For these students, there are transition arrangements in place until 31 December 2032, allowing qualification via the traditional route.

 

For those who do not fall into this category, qualifying via the SQE will consist of the following four stages:

 

  1. Obtaining a degree (or degree equivalent) in any subject
  2. Completing the SQE1 and SQE2 assessments
  3. A minimum of two years’ qualifying work experience (QWE)
  4. Showing that you are of satisfactory character and suitability

 

The four stages are set out as follows:


(Infographic by BPP Law School)

 

As with anything new, the process may take some time to get used to. Thankfully, a full breakdown of the SQE process, including information on the assessments and what constitutes as QWE can be found on the website of various SQE providers (if you don’t know where to start – a full list of providers can be found on the legal cheek website).

 

Benefits of the SQE route

 

For a lot of law students, a more affordable method of qualifying could not have come at a better time. A large perk, and one of the main purposes of the SQE, is that its affordability provides more opportunities for a career in law. This opens doors for students who cannot afford to self-fund the LPC, and ambitious paralegals that have not been lucky enough to obtain the ‘Golden Ticket’ of the legal industry – a training contract.

 

The LPC can cost up to £17,500 whereas the SQE exams total £3,980 – a huge saving for students (albeit this does not include the cost of any preparation courses).

 

Another benefit is the opportunity to diversify the legal profession by opening up the course to students with differing degrees. While legal-specific knowledge gained from a law degree will no doubt prove useful in completing the SQE, a degree (or degree equivalent) in another subject will also be accepted to begin the assessments. Perhaps this will open more doors for career changers and result in an increase in qualified solicitors from other employment and educational backgrounds?

 

Downsides to the SQE route

 

A (short-term) downside to the SQE route is that it will take time to be widely understood and implemented by firms across the UK. As a result, despite the number of firms tackling the SQE head on, students hoping to complete the SQE with the support of an employer may find they have a smaller pool of viable firms to choose from.

 

Another factor to consider is the pass rate of the exams. While they are cheaper and can be completed in a shorter time than the LPC, these benefits were not experienced by the 47% of candidates who failed the first SQE1 assessment in November last year. A 53% pass rate has been considered low by many and raised concern amongst students. Giles Proctor (Chief Executive of the College of Legal Practice) noted that SQE1 is a ‘very different animal’ to the LPC and that ‘the difficulty should not be underestimated’. With this in mind, it is recommended that students complete one of the preparation courses offered by providers.

 

What if I’ve completed the LPC but want to do the SQE?

 

For LPC graduates, your hard work has not gone to waste. You can use your qualification to fast-track straight to SQE2 and your QWE.

 

What does this mean for law firms?

 

Many firms are already in talks with providers to put in place a new system whereby paralegals can take on the SQE while completing their QWE at the firm. Many law firms will cover or sponsor their employees’ fees for the SQE preparation and assessments, others will provide QWE to those who have completed one or both of the exams but will not offer funding.

 

As QWE is signed off by the legal employer, an imminent change is law firms’ understanding of what constitutes QWE. For those who have already completed part of the required QWE, such as a Pro Bono placement, it will be up to individual law firm to decide how they accept the employee’s previous work experience. For example, it is expected that some firms will require the SQE student to complete the full two years of QWE with them.

 

Finding legal talent

 

When it comes to finding new talent, firms with the expectation that entry-level candidates have completed their LPC will need to decide on a new determining factor when considering a paralegal’s employability, potentially opening up more opportunities to those with no more than their LLB and legal work experience.

 

Some firms are cautious of adopting the SQE so quickly and view the more established LPC route as a safer option when recruiting, however, the SQE exams and the preparation they provide to future solicitors shouldn’t go unnoticed. With its popularity (and the inevitability of the LPC coming to an end) law firms will need to adjust if they want to avoid losing young talent to competitors already offering the newer alternative.

 

Lastly, considering the SQE is intended to be more accessible, its introduction may result in a larger candidate pool of ambitious juniors – something that will surely be welcomed in today’s candidate-driven market.

 

Final thoughts

 

It seems there are three overarching benefits of the SQE – affordability, accessibility, and consistency in how students are examined, all while allowing for a mix of educational backgrounds and varying work experience.

 

While these overarching benefits will undoubtedly offer a refreshing change to the legal industry, we are unlikely to see the full effect for a number of years. In the meantime, as legal recruiters we will be closely observing how candidates and firms adapt to the change in qualification. What we hope to see above all is the new route diversifying the legal industry and creating more opportunities for those wishing to pursue a career in law.

 

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