The Solicitors Qualifying Exam and what it means for the next generation of Solicitors.

Jenna Hogan, trainee solicitor at the Preston office of Birchall Blackburn Law shares the most recent updates on the Solicitors Qualifying Exam and a new route into qualifying from the traditional training contract route:

Like most Trainee Solicitors I took the route to qualifying by obtaining my Law Degree, following by the Legal Practice Course and then completing a Training Contract. Within the next two years, this qualification route will be turned on its head and a new route to qualification will be introduced. This new route will be a change for both future solicitors and law firms who provide training contracts.

Effective from 2021, the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) will be brought in to replace the Legal Practice Course and Training Contract. This new super exam is split into two parts and will cover both legal skills and legal practice. Below, I look into what the steps needed to qualify will be, and the advantages and disadvantages of the new route:

1. Getting your degree

Most trainee solicitors hold a law degree or have obtained a different degree and completed the conversion course, the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). When the new route comes into effective, holding any type of degree will allow you to qualify to become a solicitor. Whilst the first level of the SQE, discussed below, will cover some elements of the GDL it will not cover everything. Therefore, there is no requirement to pass any additional courses before completing Level 1 of the SQE.

2. Solicitors Qualifying Exam Level 1

Once your degree is completed, you are eligible to sit Level 1 of the SQE. This will cover legal practice and will include topics such as Property Law, Business Law, Dispute Resolution and Wills and Probate. This is very similar to the Legal Practice Course which is currently in place; however the examination method is different. Currently on the Legal Practice Course, you will sit an exam for each subject which you study and will obtain an individual mark for each subject. Initial information provided in respect of the SQE suggests that all subjects will be covered over three papers and 360 questions, hence the name “Super Exam”.

3. Work Experience

After the Level 1 exams have been passed, two years work experience must be completed. Again, this sounds very similar to the old route in which a future solicitor had to complete a two year training contract. However, the work experience part of the route does not necessarily have to be a training contract. Whilst some firms will still go down this route, the Law Society will also recognise the following roles as work experience:

1. Legal Apprenticeships
2. Paralegal
3. Student Law Clinics

The work experience must be completed in 6 month periods and must amount to two years. So for example, within those two years you could work at 4 different law firms or you could stick to one.

4. Solicitors Qualifying Exam Level 2

After the work experience has been completed, you are eligible to sit Level 2 of the SQE. This will cover the legal skills such as legal drafting and research, advocacy and client interviewing. The examination method on this hasn’t yet been confirmed but it is likely that these examinations will involve a more practical approach rather than a written examination. The examinations will also be based on two topics of your choice
from SQE Level 1.

5. Qualification

Once your Level 2 examinations have been passed, you can then qualify as a solicitor.

One of the biggest benefits of the new route is the flexibility. There is no set route to take and as long as all the elements are covered, you will still be able to qualify. On the current route, you must obtain your degree before you sit the Legal Practice Course. You must complete your Legal Practice Course before you can start a training contract. On the new route, there is nothing to stop you starting your degree at 18 on a part time basis or through the Open University, and covering your work experience over the 4 or 5 years it takes you to do your degree. You can then sit the Level 1 and Level 2 exams one after the other and qualify.

However, if some firms still want to go down the route of training contracts then you may not be eligible to apply until you have obtained your degree and passed your Level 1 SQE. The information around the SQE is still very brief and therefore the information which is available at the moment may change before it comes into effect in 2021.

Possibly the biggest advantage to the new route is the cost. Currently, the Legal Practice Course can range from anywhere between £8,000.00 and £15,000.00 depending on where you study. The SQE has an estimated cost of £4,500.00 which is spread over two payments. The first payment will be made when you sit your SQE Level 1 (1,900.00 approx.) and the final payment will be made when you sit your SQE Level 2.

There is still no government funding for this but some universities may offer discounts if you studied your undergraduate degree with them. Additionally, as the route involves work experience, you could fund the SQE through this rather than obtaining a loan or other funding.

Regarding the degree element, regardless of whether or not you study law or not, most law firms will be looking for a 2:1 degree level for future solicitors. This element remains unchanged.

For those currently studying their undergraduate degrees, do not fear. The Law Society has confirmed that you have 11 years from starting your degree to decide whether or not you want to take the old route or the new route to qualifying. This is with a view to getting rid of the Legal Practice Course by 2030.

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