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Event Review: Legal Cheek and the SQE

On January 27th 2021, UCL’s Law for All Society was delighted to welcome Aishah Hussain, features editor at Legal Cheek, for a virtual discussion on the SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Exam). With the announcement of the first ever SQE results the previous week, Aishah provided a timely, engaging, and informative talk on the matter. This blog article will provide a run-down of what was discussed and highlight some of Aishah’s tips regarding the SQE and becoming a qualified solicitor.

What is the structure of the SQE?

The SQE is an independent centralised assessment for those who would like to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales. After a decade in the works, the SQE came into force in September 2021 and will eventually replace the LPC (Legal Practice Course), which is to be phased out over the next ten years or so.

There are four elements to the new SQE training route: obtaining a degree or equivalent (e.g., a Degree Apprenticeship), SQE1, SQE2, and qualifying work experience (QWE). Apart from the completion of SQE1 before SQE2, the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) does not specify which order to do the components in.

SQE1 consists of two five-hour computer-based tests of functioning legal knowledge (FLK), FLK1 and FLK2. SQE2 tests legal skills through 16 ‘stations’ (i.e. tasks), divided into SQE2 oral (four stations assessing interview and attendance note/legal analysis, and advocacy) and SQE2 written (12 stations assessing case and matter analysis, legal research, legal writing and legal drafting).

Why did the SRA bring in the SQE?

Aishah suggested that a major reason for the introduction of the SQE was to set a common standard for future solicitors. Under the SQE, students sit the same national, centralised exams at the same time, whilst the LPC is examined by the numerous training providers. This is exemplified by the recent publication of the first SQE results: whereas 53% passed the first SQE1, the LPC pass rate ranged from 31% to 100% for the academic year to August 2020, depending on the provider. Aishah commented that the publication of the breakdown of the SQE performance by provider – which the SRA has said that it is committed to publishing from late 2023 – will be a ’gamechanger’.

In an effort to reduce the ‘LPC Gamble’, a major difference between the LPC and the SQE is the nature of the work experience that must be done in order to qualify. Under the LPC route, would-be lawyers must undergo a two-year training contract and PSC (Professional Skills Course) after the LPC. However, under the SQE route, two years of qualifying work experience (QWE) can be done before, during or after the LPC, and can be obtained from up to four different organisations. Some examples include a placement programme during a law degree, employment in a law clinic or at a voluntary or charitable organisation (e.g. Citizens Advice), working as a paralegal, or undergoing a training contract. Aishah highlighted that this increased flexibility is intended to improve access to the profession and build diversity. Although there is no requirement for firms to pay those undertaking QWE, it promotes an ‘earn whilst you learn’ system. There is no prescribed length of time for a single seat, and seat rotation is not required, which Aishah noted may be attractive for potential lawyers that are already certain that they want to specialise in one area of law. Aishah recommended that (future) SQE students should think about the type of law that they want to eventually be in (such as in a specialist firm or corporate law firm) when considering the nature of their QWE.

Lastly, Aishah suggested that the SQE was introduced in part to drive down costs for students. Under the LPC, many would-be solicitors must pay hefty up-front costs, with full-time fees sometimes exceeding £17,000. The total candidate fee for the SQE, which is paid to the SRA, is £3,980. Although SQE prep courses are not compulsory, they are advised, and typically cost between £8,000 and £11,000.

However, Aishah recommended considering a few factors before concluding that the SQE is cheaper or less of a gamble than the LPC. Firstly, ‘hidden fees’ in the form of re-sits and cancellation fees can be pricey. Secondly, the nature (and thus the price) of SQE prep courses varies hugely; for example, The University of Law’s LLM Legal Practice (SQE1&2) enables graduates to gain a Master’s award as part of the programme. Given the wide array of courses available, Aishah advised conducting thorough research when deciding which course to take. Thirdly, electives have been removed from the SQE syllabus. This has resulted in BPP University Law school delivering ‘top-up courses’, provided by the City Consortium. Aishah warned that self-funding students may feel pressured to take these courses to obtain the same standard as sponsored trainees, increasing the total cost of becoming a qualified solicitor. Having said this, Aishah noted that we are still awaiting more costs-related information, given that the SQE has only been introduced recently.

Keeping up with the latest developments

In general, some details of the SQE remain uncertain, so Aishah recommended that budding solicitors should keep up with SQE-related news. This can be done by speaking to people who have sat the SQE exams, joining SQE support groups on Facebook, and exploring SQE threads on the Student Room. In addition, Legal Cheek provides invaluable resources, information, and news regarding the SQE that are certainly worth checking out!

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