This article has been updated to reflect an announced change to the implementation date by the SRA. The estimated implementation date has been changed from 2020 to 2021.
Currently, to qualify as a solicitor you must do a law degree – or a non-law degree followed by a conversion course (a GDL or CPE) – before completing the legal practice course (LPC) and training contract. Alternative routes are open to those who have qualifications from the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) or who have already qualified in another jurisdiction.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has announced that it will introduce a new standardised assessment – the solicitors qualifying examination or SQE – in 2021 to replace the current system. This date has been subject to change in the past and may change again in future. The new system is designed to make the standard of qualification consistent – all aspiring solicitors, no matter which route they take, will sit the SQE stages one and two. The SRA hopes that this new route will make qualification more accessible by lowering the cost of study compared to the current graduate diploma in law (GDL) and legal practice course (LPC).
Will the new law super-exam affect you if you are already on a law degree, GDL or CPE? How will the SQE affect 2021 graduates?
If you have already started a qualifying law degree, a law conversion course or LPC before September 2021, you will have the option to qualify via the existing route or you can choose to take the new route – the SQE. Nothing changes for you unless you opt for the new route.
If you start your law degree, conversion course or LPC between now and August 2021, you can stick with the current system or choose to do the SQE. From September 2021, all would-be solicitors who haven’t started a law degree, conversion course or LPC will need to qualify using the SQE.
I’m a non-law student. Will I need to do a law conversion course before the super-exam?
Under the new system, non-law graduates must decide themselves whether they need to complete a law conversion course (and incur the extra cost that involves) to gain the knowledge to sit the stage one SQE exam.
Will I still need to do a two-year training contract or ‘period of recognised training’ with a law firm?
Not necessarily. The new system is designed to offer flexibility when it comes to work experience. You will still be required to complete pre-qualification legal work experience but it needn’t be in the form of a traditional training contract at a law firm. Other qualifying work experience – such as a law apprenticeship, a paralegal job, a work placement as part of a sandwich degree or volunteering in a student law clinic – is likely to count. However, the finer details are yet to be finalised on this so do check with the SRA before concluding that you can rely on your law clinic experience.
What are the requirements for qualifying as a solicitor via the SQE?
To be able to qualify as a solicitor in the future, individuals will need to:
- hold an undergraduate degree or complete a legal apprenticeship
- have completed two years' qualifying work experience, in up to four organisations. There is no minimum time individuals will need to have spent in these organisations and the experience does not need to be of equal length
- meet certain character and suitability requirements.
Whether you need the character and suitability requirements before starting the SQE is yet to be ironed out - having them before qualifying is the important element.
The SQE assessment will be divided into two stages. The first stage will examine an aspiring solicitor’s ability to apply legal knowledge, such as criminal law, contract law and tort. Both law and non-law graduates will be required to complete stage one of the SQE.
The second stage of the new SQE – and the fees are the more expensive of the two stages – will test a candidate’s legal skills (eg client interviewing, legal drafting and advocacy). The SRA (the regulatory arm of the Law Society) expects many candidates will take SQE stage one before their work-based experience, and SQE stage two at the end of their work experience.
Students will either pass or fail the SQE – there will be no distinctions or commendations.
Why has the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) introduced these changes to legal education?
The aim is to guarantee consistently high standards and quality at the entry point to the profession. Currently, the GDL and LPC exams are set and graded by the individual course providers themselves, such as The University of Law, BPP and Cardiff Law School, and the standards (as well as the costs) can vary from course provider to course provider.
‘The SRA has put in place the principles and frameworks for the new qualification route and the transition to SQE,’ explains Juliet Tomlinson, careers adviser at the University of Oxford and member of AGCAS Legal Professional Task Group. ‘Many of the details though are still being worked on in consultation with legal professionals and educational institutions.'
Kaplan was appointed assessor for the SQE in June 2018, which allows law firms, course providers and others to create more specific plans for the education and training of future solicitors.