The Solicitors Qualifying Exam: Is it making Entry into the Legal Profession Harder?

What is the SQE? There has been much debate about the development of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)…

What is the SQE?

There has been much debate about the development of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) which will be introduced on 1st September 2021. The purpose of its introduction is to ensure that everyone who becomes a solicitor will consistently meet the same high standards. The SQE requires that all aspiring solicitors (from the 2021 date onwards) will need to have a degree in any subject (or equivalent qualification or work experience), pass both stages of the assessment; that is the legal knowledge and practical legal skills assessments, and have two years’ qualifying work experience (this must be full time and is equivalent to the traditional training contract). Not only that, students must meet the character and suitability requirements, these mainly encompass integrity as a solicitor additional to the student’s knowledge and skills.

Recapping the Traditional Law Qualifying Routes

Traditionally, entry into the profession could be gained by many avenues. Some choose the traditional route encompassing a law degree followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and a two-year training contract. Some choose to do an apprenticeship over six years, spending twenty percent of the working-week studying and the rest working in a firm. Additionally, there is the CILEX route whereby the candidate will complete a university degree, a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) if the university degree is not a law degree, obtain a Graduate Fast-Track Diploma (if an LLB or GDL is held), complete the employment requirements which is usually at least three years of legal employment for at least twenty hours per week, then followed by the LPC. The benefit of this is that due to the legal employment requirement, the traditional training contract format won’t have to be followed. As all law students and employers know, earning a contract is the most difficult entry point into the profession following the traditional route. However, the benefit of the CILEX route is that there is three years’ worth of knowledge and skills gained, in comparison to the two years during a training contract. This could perhaps be argued to be more valuable than starting a training contract without it.

What does a shift to the SQE mean for firms/employers?

The first thing the introduction of the SQE will mean for firms and students is that there is much more flexibility in the training process. However, this brings the difficulty of ensuring that such recruits have gained the required necessary training and work experience and then will still need to ensure they recruit a diverse workforce. Firms must be sure to still provide support for students who take the SQE, as it is merely the starting point. Some even argue that the SQE shifts power from law firms to students since by having already completed three years of recognised training, a training contract is likely no longer necessary. In essence, a student is ready to qualify with the necessary requirements, including three years’ experience.

Will the SQE make it harder or easier to become a solicitor?

While a law degree is very beneficial for the SQE study, it will no longer be compulsory after its introduction. Stage one of the SQE assesses legal knowledge through a series of multiple-choice questions and stage two involves assessment via oral exams. It appears that there is not much difference between the SQE and LPC, students are still required to sit core modules and similar examinations. However, the SQE ultimately removes the requirement to have a law degree so that students with other degrees can qualify. The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) believes that the number of institutions involved in evaluating aspiring solicitors makes it difficult to ensure that all new solicitors are assessed the same, the SQE will essentially ensure that all trainees sit the same exam ensuring consistency. The SRA also believes that the SQE will make the law profession more accessible by lowering the cost of study.

Additionally, the dividing of the route into two stages could allow self-funding law students to reduce their financial risk. Payment for the SQE would be held off until students manage to gain qualifying work experience, unlike the traditional route with the LLB (or GDL), LPC and training contract. There was a financial threat in the old system since once a student earns over £25,000, any loans are required to start being paid for, such as through Student Finance England. Under the SQE there are significant financial benefits that reduce the need for loans to qualify.

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