Training and progression

How to become a solicitor

2 Feb 2024, 09:39

Take a peek at the road ahead if you wish to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales.

A road leading into the far distance

Supported by:

Ashfords LLP

The qualifying route to becoming a solicitor has changed and, for university students, the path you take can differ depending on the year you started your studies. Here we go through each step to becoming a solicitor. Read on to discover more about:

The solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) route

If you started your degree any time from September 2021 onwards, you will follow a new solicitors qualifying examination (SQE) route, which involves passing two assessments and undertaking two years of qualifying work experience (QWE).

It’s possible to complete all of this independently and through self-funding, but many law firms will hire you before you begin the SQE and sponsor you through the exams. Your firm will also pay for you to undertake any further study they deem necessary for you to pass the assessments and provide you with QWE.

What are the SQE assessments?

The SQE assessments are known as SQE1 and SQE2. The first assessment must be passed before attempting the second and you have a six-year timeframe, and three attempts, in which to pass both. There are four exam sittings per year: in January, April, July, and October. Otherwise, the timing of when you take each exam is flexible (see below).

SQE1 tests an aspiring solicitor’s ability to apply fundamental legal knowledge (such as criminal law, contract law and tort) and ethics through multiple-choice, single-best answer questions.

SQE2 tests a candidate’s practical legal skills (for example client interviewing, legal drafting and advocacy) in conjunction with legal knowledge through assessments including role-play and written exercises.

Do I need any further study to sit the assessments?

You’ll need an undergraduate degree (or an equivalent qualification), but it can be in any discipline. However, the SQE assessments will be difficult to pass without legal knowledge. Therefore, it is recommended that non-law graduates undertake a law conversion course: in most cases, the postgraduate diploma in law (PGDL).

In fact, some law firms require that non-law graduates pass a conversion course in order to secure QWE with them, although if they have hired you as a student they will pay for it. There are also SQE preparation courses for law and non-law graduates alike, and some course providers will also want non-law students to have completed a conversion course before offering them a place.

What counts as qualifying work experience (QWE)?

Many law firms offer two-year ‘training contracts’ that fulfil the QWE requirements. But what is different about the SQE route to qualification is that you do not have to complete all of your QWE in one go or at one organisation: you can complete it with up to four different employers for varying lengths of time. So, it is possible to accumulate two years of legal work experience ‘in pieces’, via short contracts and volunteering, as long as the organisation and experience meets the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA’s) requirements.

Therefore, organisations that can provide QWE include law firms, legal clinics in academic institutions, law centres and charities. There is no definitive list of what counts as QWE (yet), but paralegal and legal executive work does, and vacation schemes (formal work experience schemes run by law firms) and student volunteer work at legal clinics may do.

It’s worth noting that some masters degrees include some guaranteed QWE as part of their syllabus.

When do I complete QWE?

QWE can be undertaken before, after, while or between sitting SQE1 and SQE2. If you are not being sponsored through the SQE, it is up to you how you balance the timings of the SQE with QWE. You may well decide that you require the practical experience of the QWE before taking the SQE. If a law firm is sponsoring you through the SQE, it will decide what you do when.

Some law firms have partnered with course providers to run an SQE study programme, through which you prepare for and sit SQE1 and SQE2 in turn. In addition to preparation courses, you take an extra course (often called a ‘plus’ course) specific to the firm’s needs. Once you have passed SQE2, you start a two-year training contract with the firm. Non-law graduates will undertake a funded PGDL beforehand.

Firms offering this include Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith Freehills, Slaughter and May, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, and Norton Rose Fulbright.

At other firms, such as Hill Dickinson LLP and Kennedys, you will undertake your QWE at the same time as the SQE assessments (and, if appropriate, a law conversion course). If this is the case, your training scheme may not be called a training contract, but a graduate solicitor apprenticeship or similar.

The legal practice course (LPC) route

If you started your degree before September 2021, you can technically qualify via the old route up to 2032. This involves:

  • graduating with a law degree or undertaking a law conversion course
  • studying for the legal practice course (LPC)
  • completing a period of recognised training (usually a two-year training contract)

Previously, law firms would hire you as a trainee before your LPC and sponsor you through the process. However, lots of the big firms are switching to the SQE route from 2024 if they haven’t already, so check whether your preferred firms would still support the LPC qualification route. If you have completed the LPC but switch to the SQE route, you are exempt from SQE1.

Is there a chartered legal executive route to qualifying as a solicitor?

Most chartered legal executives are not exempt from the SQE requirements of having a degree and passing the SQE1 and SQE assessments (although there are a few exceptions, particularly for those with a great deal of experience – so do check with the SRA). However, working as a legal executive does count as QWE.

The school leaver apprenticeship route

As a school leaver with A levels or equivalent, you are able to qualify as a solicitor via a six-year apprenticeship. The apprenticeship involves studying for a law undergraduate degree (LLB) and a masters-level qualification (LLM) while working. To then qualify via the SQE route, you will then need to sit the SQE assessments; you will have completed the qualifying work experience requirements during your apprenticeship.

Note that this level 7 solicitor apprenticeship is different from a solicitor graduate apprenticeship, which is what some firms are calling their support through the SQE qualifying route (see above).

The assessment of character and suitability requirements

To be admitted as a solicitor (and therefore practise as one), you will need to meet the SRA’s ‘Assessment of Character and Suitability Rules’. See the SRA for more details.

How long does it take to qualify as a solicitor?

Much will depend on the route you take and how you choose to fulfil its requirements. You have six years in which to pass the SQE assessments, for example. It may technically be possible for a law graduate to complete the SQE requirements in just over two years, if they complete their QWE continuously and pass the SQE assessments at the same time.

However, in all likelihood it will take longer: many firms will require law graduates to undertake a one-year ‘plus’ programme, combining elements of legal knowledge and SQE preparation before passing the SQE assessments and undertaking the two years of QWE, and non-law graduates will need to take a conversion course before that.

Gaining work experience in law

Your chances of securing a training contract or equivalent QWE will be greatly enhanced if you build up a portfolio of law-related work experience. This will help you to prove your interest in the profession. Many law firms run formal two-week work experience programmes for students, known as vacation schemes. These are often aimed at specific groups of students, for example second-year law students or final-year non-law students, and many firms look to hire the majority, if not all, of their future trainees from their vacation firms.

Larger law firms also run insight programmes, particularly for first-year students, and often fast-track attendees through to the interview stage of the recruitment process for their vacation schemes.

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