The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)
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If you were a student looking to become a solicitor in the past few years, the route to qualification seemed pretty straightforward. Yes, there are other routes a student can take towards a successful law career (like CILEX), but for most students the route was laid out: the LLB (or GDL), followed by the LPC, perhaps a vac scheme along the way, then two years as a trainee at a law firm.
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) might shake that all up. Rather than prescribing a course that students need to take, the SQE sets a new centralised, standardised exam. This is what you’ll need to pass to become a solicitor in future.
SQE is split into two parts. SQE1 tests legal knowledge – the kind of subject matter currently tested on the LLB, GDL and LPC. It looks likely that SQE1 will mean two tests of 180 multiple choice questions each (though the SRA has not yet finalised this). SQE2 will test skills such as advocacy, client interviews, drafting and research – like a tougher version of the Skills module currently taught on the LPC.
And what about the two-year training contract? Well, what is needed now is “a period of qualifying work experience” instead. The work experience can be obtained from up to four organisations and could include such things as vacation schemes and university law clinics as well.
The SRA has also said that it expects SQE2 (and possibly also SQE1) to be taken after the period of qualifying work experience (though this doesn’t seem to be mandatory). These changes turn the training contract model on its head – no longer do students have to pass exams before entering a strictly defined training contract. Instead, students might sit SQE1 before two years of work experience at a range of organisations, then take SQE2 after. Or students could take both tests before gaining work experience. That work experience could be gained over a long period of time, at a range of firms, clinics and other organisations, as a student works part-time alongside their work experience.
But does that mean that the training contract is dead? Almost certainly not.
The LLB, GDL and LPC are reassuring for law firms. A student who passes these exams most likely has a solid academic base and work ethic suited to being a trainee that a firm can mould. Law firms may be less keen to recruit students who have not yet passed SQE2. This may mean a bias towards law firms doing what they know works – which could mean a renewed focus on recruiting law graduates. Or it could mean that firms push law schools to keep courses like the GDL and LPC available for their recruits (for more on which, see our blog next week).
And the training contract is another thing which law firms know works. For years firms have been teaching their trainees to become practising solicitors by rotating them through a series of departments (typically four, though some firms offer more seats) over two years and giving them both formal and on-the-job training, as well as plenty of grunt work and hard slog. Law firms will still expect their trainees to work hard. They may well look down on potential solicitors who have done their work experience at law clinics and through vac schemes rather than at the commercial coalface.
Yes, the SQE does open up new routes to legal qualification. These may be excellent for some students and for some employers. But for students looking to work at a big law firm, the training contract is not going to go away. In reality, passing the SQE will not entitle someone to walk straight into legal practice as a newly qualified solicitor – firms are going to expect their solicitors to have put the work in and to have the grades and experience to prove it.