In what has been described in the U.K. as “the biggest shake-up in legal education in decades” the Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination (SQE) is set to change the way all UK solicitors qualify from 2021.

Now that the UK Solicitors Regulation Authority (“SRA”) has confirmed what the new UK solicitor qualification process will look like, we’ve drafted the below article to walk through the changes.

Previously, the process involved trainee solicitors attending a Legal Practice Course (“LPC”) run by one of a number of providers. LPC content was broadly similar to PPC1 and PPC2 (in the Irish solicitor qualification process).

So, UK trainee solicitors will no longer receive any formal classroom-based training in how to practice as a solicitor. They will simply sit an exam to confirm that they have picked up this knowledge during their training contract.

What is the New UK Solicitor Qualification Process?

The new UK solicitor qualification process means that candidates must:

  • hold a degree (in any subject) / have an equivalent qualification or experience;
  • pass the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (“SQE”);
  • complete a two-year period of qualifying work experience (i.e. a training contract); and
  • pass a “character and suitability” requirement.

The SQE is divided into two parts:

  • SQE1 examines “functioning legal knowledge” (i.e. how well do you understand “the law”?); and
  • SQE2 examines “practical skills”.

SQE1 consists of two multiple choice exams covering the following areas:

  • Business Law and Practice; Dispute Resolution; Contract; Tort; Legal System of England and Wales; Constitutional and Administrative Law and EU Law and Legal Services.
  • Property Practice; Wills and the Administration of Estates; Solicitors Accounts; Land Law; Trusts; Criminal Law and Practice.

Sample questions are available here.

SQE 2 examines:

  • client interviewing with linked attendance note/legal analysis
  • attendance note/legal analysis
  • advocacy
  • case and matter analysis
  • legal research and written advice
  • legal drafting
  • legal writing.

What will the costs of the new UK Solicitor Qualification process be?

In short, the new process will have significantly lower costs.

The cost of the SQE is expected to be around £3,000-£4,500 (in total, for both exams). This is a significant reduction from costs for the LPC, which were previously between £9,000-£17,000 (depending on the provider).

Of course, the previous fee included extensive classroom based training on how to practice as a solicitor, while the new fee is simply an examination fee.

When will the new changes come into effect?

The first SQE is expected to take place in September 2021, but final sign-off is required from the Legal Services Board.

As there has been some concerns voiced in response to the proposal (more on that below) it is possible that this date will change.

Additionally, the SRA have confirmed that it will not be introduced as a “big bang” change, and that the new and current systems will run alongside each other for some years to allow those who start their legal education before the SQE is introduced choose which process they follow.

What has been the reaction to the SQE?

The Lawyer recently reported that that The Junior Lawyers Division of The Law Society (JLD) had published a letter to the SRA setting out their concerns over the new process.

Following the conclusion of the SRA’s final pilot exercise, the JLD says it was contacted by a number of individuals who had tested some of the sample questions who had concerns that the multiple choice questions were too easy to answer.

In their letter the JLD state: “This small number of examples produce troubling results and would suggest that the MCQs are not overly difficult, confirming the current concerns of the profession, and that the SRA is potentially setting the level of legal knowledge and/or question standard too low.”

“Feedback we received from a candidate who actually participated in the first SQE pilot was that the MCQs did not demonstrate a knowledge of the law, but more a demonstration of common sense. It was noted that a law degree teaches students not only the law, but also a way of thinking within the legal framework, to apply legal knowledge and formulate arguments. This skill is simply not assessed at SQE 1.”

Pros and Cons

As a positive, it will now be quicker and cheaper to qualify as a solicitor in the UK than ever before. While the lack of a professional training course does give rise to concerns as to the level of training generally across the UK profession, an individual prospective trainee solicitor can insulate themselves from this by carefully choosing a reputable law firm to train with.

Also, this is not exactly unchartered territory. In the US, the qualification process in the majority of states has never entailed attending a professional training course. A candidate qualifies as an attorney simply by passing their state bar exam (such as the New York Bar) – with no professional training course or in-office training period whatsoever.

As ever, it is up to each candidate to choose which country’s qualification process works best for them, and we at The Foxrock Academy are always available to talk you through your options and provide advice tailored to your personal circumstances.