The introduction of the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination) has permanently changed the route to legal qualification. For many years, the traditional route to becoming a solicitor in England and Wales has involved the following: studying for a law degree at university (which normally takes three years) and then enrolling in a one-year professional training course post-graduation called the Legal Practice Course (LPC). If a student has completed their undergraduate degree in an area other than law, then they will first have to complete the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before commencing the LPC. After this, it is a requirement to complete a two-year period of recognised training (known as a training contract) before ultimately qualifying as a solicitor. The SQE is a new route that has now been introduced that has changed the process by which one becomes an English-qualified solicitor.
Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)
The SRA regulates solicitors and law firms in England and Wales. The SRA oversees the process of training required to become a solicitor, decides on professional standards and also has a framework of response and sanctions if solicitors break the rules. The SRA controls who practices as a solicitor and can debar someone from practising and close down law firms.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has introduced a new route to qualifying as a solicitor by creating a new assessment for all aspiring solicitors called the SQE, which came into being on the 1 September 2021.
Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS)
The Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS) was a programme that enabled foreign qualified lawyers to become qualified solicitors in England and Wales. To achieve this, foreign qualified lawyers were required to take a series of two examinations: the MCT (a written assessment) and the OSCE (a practical assessment).
The QLTS has now been replaced by the SQE, so foreign qualified lawyers will now have to sit for the SQE exams in order to become English qualified solicitors.
SQE: Qualify as a Solicitor
The new way to qualify as a solicitor includes four elements, these are:
- A degree level qualification.
- Completion of the two SQE exams.
- Two years of SQE qualifying work experience (QWE) which can be before or after the SQE exams.
- Satisfying the character and suitability requirements for entry to the profession.
The SQE exams replace the previous route to qualification although there is a long transitional period of around ten years for the new system to bed in. The more traditional route of a law degree plus the one-year LPC (two years if the GDL is included) will still be available until 2032 for students who have already begun their legal training or study.
The pre-requisite to sitting the SQE exams is a degree-level qualification in any subject, or an equivalent qualification or experience. What counts as a degree includes the following:
- A UK degree awarded at level 6 (or above) by a recognised degree-awarding body (this is usually an undergraduate degree
- An equivalent UK qualification. These are:
- An accredited qualification at level 6 (or above) of the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications, awarded by recognised degree-awarding body
- A regulated qualification at level 6 (or above) of the Regulated Qualifications Framework (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). This includes CILEx level 6 qualifications
- An apprenticeship at level 6 or above, approved by the government departments of England, Wales or Northern Ireland
- A qualification or apprenticeship at level 9 or above of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, accredited by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) or awarded by a Scottish degree awarding body
- An overseas qualification:
- Shown to be equivalent to either a UK degree/equivalent qualification or
- An accredited qualification at level 6 (or above) of the European Qualifications Framework
- Work experience equivalent to a UK degree/equivalent qualification (each equivalent application will be considered on a case by case basis).
SQE Exam Structure
The SQE is a national, centralised assessment which all aspiring solicitors must pass regardless of the pathway they have taken through study and training. The SQE exams consist of two parts: (i) the SQE 1 assessment; and (ii) the SQE2 assessment.
SQE1 examines a candidate’s functioning legal knowledge in various areas of the law. The candidate will have to apply their legal knowledge in various scenarios where they will be required to solve client problems.
SQE1 contains two separate assessments for functioning legal knowledge (or FLK) in a practical context: (i) FLK1; and (ii) FLK2.
This covers the following areas of the law:
- Business Law and Practice
- Dispute resolution
- Contract Law
- Tort Law
- The Legal System of England and Wales
- Constitutional and Administrative Law
- EU Law
- Legal Services
This covers the following areas of the law:
- Property practice
- Wills and the Administration of Estates
- Solicitors accounts
- Land Law
- Trust Law
- Criminal Law
- Criminal Practice
Each of the two FLK assessments includes 180 questions. Within each FLK assessment, questions may draw on any combination of subject areas which might be encountered in practice. Ethics and professional conduct are areas that are examined pervasively across the two assessments. The SQE1 exam uses computer-based objective testing using a multiple-choice format consisting of a stem, lead-in question and five possible options where only one option is the best possible response.
The SQE2 assesses practical and legal skills in various practice contexts. There are 16 assessments in total known as stations and these draw from different practice areas so as to test a wide range of skills. These legal areas include Dispute Resolution, Property Practice, Business Law and Practice, Criminal Practice, and Wills and the Administration of Estates.
The assessment of practical legal skills includes writing, drafting and researching. It also includes oral skills, such as: interviewing, advocacy and negotiation. There are simulations of solicitor-client interactions, file reports, typical case scenarios and preparation of written advice for a client or supervising solicitor.
The interviewing and advocacy assessments involve client role-play exercises with a trained assessor. The attendance notes which follow the assessed interview are marked by a solicitor. The advocacy exam is assessed during a presentation by a solicitor acting as the decision-maker. The legal research, legal writing, legal drafting and case and matter analysis assessments are completed on a computer.
SQE Exam Rules
The SQE1 exam and SQE2 exam include a total of 24 hours of examinations, but this is spread over 7 days.
A candidate must pass both parts of the SQE1 exam, so that’s FLK1 and FLK2, before attempting the SQE2 exam. The FLK1 and FLK2 assessments must be taken in a single assessment window. Any failures can be re-taken subject to a maximum of three attempts at either the SQE1 or SQE2 exams in a six-year period. You must pass both the SQE1 and SQE2 exams in a six-year period commencing from the date of the first attempted SQE1 exam.
Qualifying Work Experience (QWE)
Another element of qualifying as a solicitor is the completion of two years of full-time qualifying work experience. This can be done before or after you have completed the SQE exams.
The SRA is quite flexible about what constitutes qualifying work experience, and this is quite a departure from the alternative model of a training contract with a law firm. There are more options and freedom in terms of what can count as QWE. Here are some of the different types of work:
- Placements in law firms during a law degree
- Spending time at law clinics
- Working as a paralegal
- Traditional training contracts
- Volunteer work at a charity
QWE can be paid or voluntary and it does not have to be spent with one organisation or in one location (up to four different placements are allowed).
SRA Character and Suitability Requirements
All individuals applying to the SRA to join the Roll of Solicitors must be of satisfactory character and suitability, and demonstrate that they are a fit and proper person to hold the position of solicitor. This is to comply with the SRA’s remit to protect the public and the public interest.
The SRA assess any element of past behaviour or conduct which calls into question the integrity of an applicant. This includes matters such as whether an individual has a criminal record and the type of offence. Other relevant conduct is behaviour which has been dishonest, violent, threatening or harassing. Regulatory offences are reviewed and also questionable financial conduct. Not all crimes and offences need to be disclosed, it depends on their categorisation.
Before applying for a character and suitability assessment, an applicant must complete the screening process which includes a check by the Disclosure and Barring Service. Screening costs £39 and is carried out by a company called Atlantic Data. Applicants are invited to apply eight weeks before the end of their QWE. The process includes checking identity records, criminal records and a person’s financial history for any bankruptcy and insolvency events.
SQE Registration and Booking
Before you can apply to take the SQE1 or SQE2, you will need to register an account with the SRA. Applicants must then complete pre-booking steps, which involve:
- Completing a diversity survey
- Confirming SQE exemptions (if applicable)
- Requesting reasonable adjustments that the applicant may need to sit the SQE exams
Applicants will then be able to book their exams once they have registered and completed all pre-booking steps. Exams can be booked once the booking window (for either the SQE1 exam or SQE2 exam) opens. Bookings are made on a first come first served basis, so booking as early as possible is recommended.
Bookings for the SQE2 exam cannot be made until an applicant has received their results for and passed the SQE1 exam (unless the applicant has an exemption from sitting the SQE1 exam).
SQE Exemptions for Foreign Qualified Lawyers
Qualified lawyers can apply for exemptions from the SQE assessments. This is someone who holds a legal professional qualification which allows them the right to practice in England and Wales or another jurisdiction.
Foreign qualified lawyers may be exempt from one of the following:
- SQE1 FLK Assessment 1 or SQE1 FLK Assessment 2; or
- SQE1 in full; or
- SQE2 in full.
To get an exemption, the individual’s legal qualification and/or experience must be the same as the assessment content and standard, which is based on English and Welsh law.
The SRA has set out a table of agreed exemptions for certain qualifications that have been reviewed and meet the SRA requirements.
Applicants are advised not to book an assessment until they have had an exemption confirmed by the SRA.
SQE Exam Dates
The SQE exams are offered twice a year, usually in January and July. They are administered by a sole assessment provider called Kaplan which is appointed by the SRA. The SQE1 FLK exams are also available in designated exam centres internationally. Kaplan is not allowed to provide preparation courses for the assessments (to maintain the integrity of the assessments).
The results of the SQE1 exam are published several weeks after the date of the assessments. The results of the SQE2 exam are released around three months after the date of the assessments.
SQE Preparation Courses
The SRA states that there are no preparatory courses for the SQE exams. The SRA maintains that a candidate’s education and training should provide the required knowledge to pass the exams. However, there are legal education providers offering preparation courses, especially for those who have come via the route of a degree that is in a subject other than law. A law degree covers most of the subjects in the SQE exams but may not offer specific preparation for the assessments.
There are different approaches to preparing for the SQE exams:
Options for SQE1 Preparation
- A law degree integrating SQE1 exam preparation which covers everything required to prepare for the exam.
- A law degree plus additional preparation for the SQE1 exam – not all law degrees cover the elements required for the SQE1 exam.
- A degree in a non-law subject plus a standalone course to prepare for the SQE1 exam.
Options for SQE2 Preparation
- Using QWE helps candidates prepare for some of the practical legal skills required in the SQE2 exam. However, additional classroom-based training may be required with independent study and mock exams.
- Dedicated SQE2 training courses are available which cover the various skills and assessments required for the SQE2 exam, these courses vary in length and content depending upon student requirements.
- SQE2 training can be offered as part of a Master’s degree and some of these degrees offer preparation for both the SQE1 exam and SQE2 exam.
SQE Course Providers
The SQE exams are rigorous and will require a good amount of preparation in order to pass. Candidates will realistically only have three attempts to pass, so it’s important that students pass on their first attempt. Passing on the first attempt also means that candidates can avoid paying re-sit fees and waiting months to take the exams again.
SQETestPrep revision and study books contain everything you will need to know to pass the SQE1 exam on your first attempt. The books have been prepared by a team of ex-Magic Circle and U.S. lawyers with over 5+ years of legal education experience. Over 2,500+ students are using the SQETestPrep books to prepare for the SQE1 exams. Free sample books can be accessed here.
For universities and recruiting law firms, the SQE exams have represented a change to the route of qualification which has been in place for a very long time. It will be at least a decade before the picture starts to change and solicitors who have come up via different routes filter into the profession. However, the nature of the final assessment in the shape of the SQE exams has changed already.
SQE Exam Funding
How much study you need to do, whether you have to pay for SQE training courses and how much they cost will depend upon your previous legal training and the route you have chosen to study. Some law firms will pay some or all of the cost of course materials and training required to prepare for the SQE exams.
At the time of writing, the SQE exams have a cost of £4,115 in total, split as follows:
- SQE1 Exam – £1,622
- SQE2 Exam – £2,493
Whilst an undergraduate law degree attracts funding via the government’s student loan scheme, post-university legal training does not. So, an important part of planning a training route is to consider the costs of preparing for the SQE exams and the exam fees. A ballpark figure for SQE preparation materials and a course is around £6,000, so working on a figure of £10,000 in total for both preparation and the cost of the exams would be reasonably accurate.
Flexibility of Study
The Solicitors Qualifying Examination route offers the ultimate flexibility of study. Students can study full-time, part-time or online, which allows them to combine study with work (which can help with funding the SQE exam fees). The idea behind the new training route is to open up the profession and make it more inclusive. There are also SQE preparation courses that are tailored to be more flexible to meet the needs of students.
SQE v LPC
Current undergraduates at university still have the choice of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination or LPC and many are wondering which will be the best option when they graduate.
There is a feeling in the legal profession, certainly amongst some law firms, that they would rather see a candidate with the LPC rather than the Solicitors Qualifying Examination. The Solicitors Qualifying Examination is still very new, and the legal profession is traditional so there will always be an instinctive reluctance to change. Many undergraduates feel they should play safe and opt for the LPC post-university, as this will give them the best choice when it comes to finding a training contract with a good law firm.
Are the SQE exams hard?
The SQE exams are rigorous and are not an easier choice compared to the traditional route of a law degree and the LPC.
The SRA is clear that the final assessments for newly qualified solicitors are the same regardless of the university they went to and the training route they have taken to become a solicitor. So, don’t expect the Solicitors Qualifying Examination to offer a softer more backdoor approach to the profession.
What can make SQE exams significantly more difficult is if a candidate has obtained a degree-level qualification in an area outside the law. Even as a graduate, to go straight to the Solicitors Qualifying Examination without any form of legal study would be very difficult.
The first results for the SQE1 exam appeared in January 2022, with a pass rate of 53%. The first SQE2 exam results revealed a pass rate of 77%. The SRA has also reported that candidates who had a higher degree classification achieved a higher pass rate.
Can you do the SQE without a degree?
Yes, you can but you must have an academic qualification which is the equivalent of a degree. Popular alternatives include the Level 6 CILEX training or an appropriate Level 6 apprenticeship.
How long does it take to do the SQE exams?
In theory, it is possible to complete both parts of the SQE exams in a year, but much will depend upon how much legal study is required and how the study is undertaken – full-time, part-time or flexibly around work commitments.