From 2021, there is likely to be a new way to qualify as a solicitor. Find out what we know so far …
The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) proposed reboot of the solicitor qualification system has gained a lot of media coverage, both positive and negative, with the outcome of it all being that it – the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) – will go ahead.
On 5 September 2019, following release of the SQE pilot results, the Law Society and the Junior Lawyers Division of England and Wales (JLD) wrote a joint letter to the Solicitors Regulation Authority outlining the outstanding concerns.
To summarise, our outstanding concerns relate to:
- inadequate equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) risk assessment(s) to explore the potential risks and benefits of the SQE to EDI in the profession
- a lack of clarity as to how the qualifying work experience element of the SQE will work and the concern that this element of SQE is intended to be unregulated
- the impact of removing the practical legal skills assessment from SQE part 1 and the reliance on multiple-choice questions to assess functioning legal knowledge
- the impact of the removal of the requirement for a qualifying law degree or a graduate diploma in law
- the lack of transparency surrounding the SQE and the failure by the SRA to publish the raw data from the first pilot
The Law Society has also called upon the government for loans to be made available for those seeking to sit the SQE and has sought the SRA’s support of this.
The JLD is pleased that the Law Society is considering ways to bridge the funding gap so that aspiring solicitors from all backgrounds have the opportunity to access the profession.
As the introduction of the SQE is less than two years away, to ensure the SQE is a success, it is essential that information is made available, accessible and transparent to the profession. It is crucial that the SRA continue to listen to stakeholders and seek input from those with expertise in legal education and training.
The JLD is, overall, supportive of the introduction of a centralised assessment. We await the SRA’s response to this letter but we are keen to work with the SRA to ensure the SQE is fit for purpose and rolled out as smoothly as possible.
On 27 March 2018, the Legal Services Board (LSB) approved the SRA’s application to introduce a centralised ”super-exam” for would be solicitors. The LSB say that its approval provides the ”framework upon which the SRA can seek to introduce new requirements for anyone wishing to qualify as a solicitor”.
On 1 August 2018 the SRA announced that they have appointed Kaplan as the assessment organisation to develop and run the SQE on behalf of the SRA. Kaplan will not, however, provide training for the SQE. They have been appointed for a period of eight years from the introduction of the SQE. Further information can be found on the SRA website.
On 8 November 2018 the SRA announced that the SQE will be introduced in autumn 2021 (the previous launch date was 2020) with the candidate fee likely to range between £3,000 to £4,500. Further information can be found on the SRA website.
Why is SQE being introduced?
Under the current training regime, there are broadly three routes to qualify as a solicitor:
- by way of apprenticeship
- the traditional route of university degree followed by a formal training contract
- ‘equivalent means’ route.
The SRA has said there is a need to ensure that all qualifying solicitors are of the same standard, regardless of the route they’ve taken.
The SRA believes that under the current arrangements, certain new pathways may be compared unfavourably to the traditional university route. The SQE is intended to dispel such notions, as passing it will enable each qualifier to demonstrate they are all of the same standard.
There is also an argument that the traditional route varies between universities and training contract providers, meaning that some are viewed more favourably i.e. studying at Oxford, or training at a magic circle firm.
What is the SQE?
Despite its name, the SQE is more than just a new form of examination. It is a complete overhaul of the way in which candidates will qualify as solicitors. Some of the key changes that are being proposed include:
- the degree requirements needed
- the exams that are to be taken
- the number of years it will take
- the amount of work experience to be completed
There will also be changes to the way in which foreign qualified lawyers will be able to practice in England and Wales.
The details are still being worked on and consultations remain open, but a number of the major points have already been decided upon by the SRA.
The new form of assessment will involve candidates taking two stages of examination, SQE1 and SQE2.
- SQE1 will test legal knowledge and will be an academic exam, mainly multiple choice, to be taken around the time of graduating from a degree or equivalent. Under the SRA’s current proposals, this does not have to be a law degree or equivalent.
- SQE2 will test issues such as client interviewing and providing advice this will be a practical skills examination to be taken, most likely, after two years of work experience has been completed.
As mentioned above, candidates will have to undertake a minimum of two years of legal work experience, which cannot comprise of any more than four separate placements within that two year period.
Qualified in another jurisdiction
For those lawyers who have qualified in other jurisdictions and looking to practice here, they will need to:
- hold a legal professional qualification which confers rights to practise in England or Wales or in an overseas jurisdiction recognised by the SRA
- demonstrate you have the competences set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence, and the knowledge of English and Welsh law set out in the Statement of Legal Knowledge either on the basis of the principles set out below and/or through successful completion of the SQE
- have a degree or qualifications or experience which the SRA is satisfied are equivalent to a degree
- satisfy the SRA’s character and suitability requirements
The SQE is due to be introduced in 2021 although there will be transitional arrangements in place.
The JLD’s views on the SQE
The introduction of the SQE is going to have a significant impact on a large proportion of our members (and future members) and one of the most important issues that we have encountered with in recent years.
The JLD is supportive, in theory, of a consistent centralised standard and recognises that there are limitations with the current system of education and training.
However, there are a number of issues that the JLD has concerns over, including:
- the limited timetable to efficiently introduce SQE
- the lack of information as to how much the SQE will cost
- the impact of the SQE on social mobility, specifically linked to costs
- the use of multiple choice questions as the basis for examination for SQE1
- the quality of qualifying work experience and its recognition
- the removal of the requirement to have experience of both contentious and non-contentious work
- the lack of clarity relating to qualification requirements for Wales given the nuances of certain laws in Wales
What has the JLD been doing in response to these proposals?
Having engaged with our national committee of representatives from across the country and listened to our members, the JLD has provided responses to each of the SRA’s consultations (links to these responses can be found below.)
The JLD has also met, on numerous occasions, with various representatives of the SRA to raise our concerns and discuss, constructively, how to move forward.
The JLD has canvassed the views of its members at meetings, training and networking events, and via its website. The common view amongst junior lawyers is that we still have not been provided with adequate information as to how the new process of qualifying is going to look.
There is concern about:
- the potential costs of the new process
- how it is going to affect law firms’ decisions to employ candidates and provide their training
- the final form of the examinations
The JLD has taken forward the views of its members and campaigned to persuade the SRA for more information. We have raised the specific concerns listed above, but the key issue remains that without full information on how the SQE is going to look, there is only so much that can be said in response to the SRA’s consultations.
JLD response to the SQE
To date there have been four SRA consultations on the SQE proposals and the JLD has responded to each of them as follows:
- Looking to the future: Phase two of the Handbook reforms (December 2017) - transitional arrangements
- A new route to qualification: New regulations (July 2017)
- A new route to qualification: The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (January 2017)
- Training for tomorrow: Assessing competence (March 2016).
Press coverage of the SQE
- (8 November 2018) Revealed: New super-exam for solicitors could cost up to £4,500 - The Law Society Gazette
- (8 November 2018) £4,500 for ‘super-exam’ may be just the tip of the iceberg - The Law Society Gazette
- (1 August 2018) Super-exam provider revealed - but costs still unknown - The Law Society Gazette
- (2 July 2018) The JLD column: The SRA needs a null hypothesis for SQE and a Plan B - The Lawyer
- (8 May 2018) The SQE is a floor on which we can build things, not a ceiling to limit us - Legal Cheek
- (27 March 2018) Super-exam gets provisional green light as LSB defies opposition - The Law Society Gazette
- (16 March 2018) Shelve super-exam for six months, say MPs - The Law Society Gazette
- (12 March 2018) Law courses to face ‘gold, silver and bronze’ ranking - The Law Society Gazette
- (12 March 2018) Delay casts fresh doubt over new super-exam - The Law Society Gazette
- (8 March 2018) Super-exam decision delayed again - The Law Society Gazette
- (12 February 2018) Super-exam: SRA facing re-sit - The Law Society Gazette
- (9 February 2018) Solicitors Qualifying Exam decision delayed amid criticism from legal educators - LawCareers.Net
- (8 February 2018) Super-exam decision delayed amid chorus of disapproval - The Law Society Gazette
- (23 January 2018) Hogen Lovells appoints super-exam guru - The Law Society Gazette
- (17 January 2018) Super regulator sets the clock ticking on super exam - The Law Society Gazette
- (15 November 2017) SRA allays fears on SQE work experience sign-off - The Law Society Gazette
- (31 October 2017) SQE: No silver bullet for social mobility - The Law Society Gazette
- (25 September 2017) Education and training: Testing times - The Law Society Gazette
- (28 July 2017) Junior lawyers warn that SQE risks ‘devaluing solicitors’ - The Law Society Gazette
- (18 July 2017) ‘Super-exam threat to law degree popularity as applications surge’ - The Law Society Gazette
- (12 June 2017) ‘Super-exam’ concerns may hit trainees - The Law Society Gazette
- (8 May 2017) Puzzling exam questions - The Law Society Gazette
- (2 May 2017) What does the new solicitor super-exam mean for trainees? - The Guardian
- (27 April 2017) SQE will be of “similar difficulty” to US bar exam - Legal Futures
- (25 April 2017) It’s official: The LPC and GDL are being scrapped - Legal Cheek
- (25 April 2017) Super exam reaction: Profession calls for ‘clarity’ - The Law Society Gazette
- (24 April 2017) SRA to announce new trainee exam - The Law Society Gazette
- (27 March 2017) New solicitor super-exam risks creating ‘tiered’ legal profession, independent report finds - Legal Cheek
- (18 May 2017) Will the new exam for training solicitors improve quality, value and diversity? - The Times
- (22 March 2016) The real cost of the SQE - Solicitors Journal
Other useful links
- SRA: Solicitors Qualifying Examination
- SRA: SQE resources for aspiring solicitors
- SRA collection of responses to the second consultation
- SRA collection of responses to the initial consultation
- The Law Society overview of the SQE
What can you do?
Although the SRA has reached a decision about the future of SQE the JLD will continue to campaign on this issue and to respond to further consultations as to how it will look.
You are welcome to email us with your views and comments.
Join the SRA’s SQE LinkedIn group and participate in the group discussion about the development of the SQE.
Junior Lawyers Division