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Solicitors Qualifying Exam overview

30 October 2018

The SRA is looking to introduce a new way of qualifying into the profession: the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The Law Society has been representing the profession's views as the SQE policy has been created and continues to do so as the assessments are developed.

This overview outlines what is currently known about the SRA's plans for the SQE and may assist aspiring solicitors, employers, providers of legal education and other organisations offering training in deciding what they can do to prepare at this stage.

While the detail of the SQE assessments is still being developed, there is much that has already been decided by the SRA and approved by the Legal Services Board or which has been the subject of SRA advice.

  1. Background
  2. What will be required?
  3. A degree level qualification
  4. SQE preparatory courses
  5. The assessments
  6. The assessment arrangements
  7. SQE results
  8. Qualifying work experience
  9. Recruitment of candidates for qualifying work experience
  10. How employers can manage qualifing work experience
  11. Supervision and sign off
  12. SQE2 results
  13. Transitional arrangements
  14. What should I be doing now?
  15. Routes to entry when SQE is introduced
  16. International jurisdictions/applicants
  17. Summary of what we do not yet know
    1. Start date for introduction of SQE
    2. Assessments details
    3. Cost of assessments and training
    4. Assessments timescales
    5. Training course availability
    6. Non-compulsory licensing system for education providers
    7. Welsh language
     
  18. Useful resources

Background

The SQE is being introduced as part of the Training for Tomorrow programme of work undertaken by the SRA in response to the final report of the Legal Education and Training Review in 2013. The report called for regulators to focus more attention on the standards required of solicitors both at point of qualification and on an on-going basis.

On 1 April 2015 following consultation, the SRA published the Statement of Solicitor Competence, which defines the standards for practice as a solicitor and therefore the competences that aspiring solicitors need to demonstrate in order to qualify. The SQE is designed as a common professional assessment to test those competences for all aspiring solicitors in a rigorous and consistent way.

On 26 March 2018 the Legal Services Board approved the SRA's application for regulatory changes that set out the framework for the SQE. A further application on the detail of the SQE will be required before the SQE can be introduced.

On 8 November 2018 the SRA announced that the SQE will be delayed by a year and will now be introduced in Autumn 2021.

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What will be required?

There will be two stages of assessments:

SQE1 will be a series of written, mainly multiple-choice exams, which will test application of legal knowledge, and a written test of legal research and legal writing. It is likely that most aspiring solicitors will take SQE1 around the time of completion of academic education.

SQE2 will be a series of practical assessments of skills, testing issues such as client interviewing and giving advice.

In addition to passing the SQE assessments, the SRA has set out other requirements that aspiring solicitors must complete prior to entering the profession:

  • a degree level qualification (or equivalent)
  • two years of qualifying work experience
  • satisfaction of a character and suitability test

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A degree level qualification

All those wishing to qualify as solicitors must hold a degree level qualification. This may be a degree or an equivalent qualification, such as a Level 6 apprenticeship or a Level 6 CILEx qualification or equivalent experience.

The SRA has not specified that the qualification must be in law, however, it will be necessary, practically, to have an education in law to pass the SQE assessments. It will also be something that employers would expect to see.

Many candidates will still choose to undertake a law degree but the SQE signals the end of the Qualifying Law Degree.

It is predicted that it will still be possible to complete some type of 'conversion' course akin to the current GDL for those who have a degree level qualification in a non-law subject. Those institutions offering such courses may look at covering what is being referred to as 'SQE prep', which will be aimed at preparing candidates for the SQE1 assessments.

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SQE preparatory courses

It is important to note that preparatory courses for the SQE are not required or specified by the SRA. The education and training that candidates receive should give them the necessary knowledge and skills to pass the assessments.

However, all candidates should consider whether the training that they have undertaken is sufficient to prepare for the SQE assessments.

Candidates will need to learn legal principles and learn how to apply them in common situations, how to reach decisions and solve problems. They will need to develop the legal skills of a solicitor. The knowledge and skills may be acquired in a range of ways and the SRA will not specify how they are acquired.

Many of the current providers of legal education and training - such as universities, colleges and private organisations - are already looking at what they will offer to candidates. It is expected that there will be a range of options available.

Some providers will include SQE preparatory training on undergraduate or masters level degree courses but there are also likely to be stand-alone preparation courses. There are also likely to be law degree courses that are more academic in orientation that are not directly geared towards SQE preparation.

Students who are considering qualifying as a solicitor should discuss the appropriateness of a particular law degree for professional practice with their target universities when choosing where to study.

The Legal Practice Course (LPC) will no longer be a required element for qualification and will likely cease to be run. Some current LPC providers will likely run courses that cover the SQE preparatory information and skills alongside some options for specific areas of law, which will be not unlike the current options offered as part of the LPC.

As they are not a required element, the SRA has stated that they will not be setting out any requirements for SQE preparatory courses.

The SRA will publish an Assessment Specification that will set out the content and coverage of the SQE and will include sample questions so that providers can design SQE preparation courses. A draft Assessment Specification is already available on the SRA website.

An employer may wish to put their candidate through a specific course or develop one with an external provider or in-house. However, employers are under no obligation to do so and are not required to pay for their candidate to attend such a course.

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The assessments

The SQE is designed to assess the competences set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence and the knowledge set out in the Statement of Legal Knowledge to the standard set out in the Threshold Standard.

The following outline reflects the position set out in the latest draft Assessment Specification. The assessment design will be reviewed, tested and piloted. The assessment design may change as it goes through the testing process.

SQE1 will include what the SRA are terming the 'Functioning Legal Knowledge assessments'. These are currently designed to be three online multiple-choice assessments. These assess application of fundamental legal principles to common situations likely to be encountered by solicitors.

In addition, SQE1 includes what the SRA are terming the 'Practical Legal Skills assessment', which will be an online written assessment.

    The multiple-choice assessments will cover:
  • company and commercial law, dispute resolution, contract and tort
  • property law and practice, wills and the administration of estates, equity and trusts, solicitors accounts
  • criminal law and practice, public and administrative law, EU law and the legal systems of England and Wales
    The written assessment will cover:
  • legal research
  • writing skills
    For SQE2 the Practical Legal Skills assessments (which could consist of mock interviews, for example) will assess:
  • client interviewing
  • advocacy and/or persuasive oral communication
  • case and matter analysis - including negotiation planning
  • legal research and written advice
  • legal drafting
    The current proposals are that these will be assessed in two of the following contexts at the candidate's choice:
  • criminal practice
  • dispute resolution
  • property
  • wills and the administration of estates
  • business practice

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The assessment arrangements

The assessment provider will be Kaplan. They will only offer the assessments and will not be able to offer training for the assessments.

We anticipate that training will be offered by many of the usual education and training providers currently in the market, as above.

There will be at least two sittings per year, although the timings of these are yet to be decided. The SRA is currently taking input from stakeholders on this.

The SRA has stated that there will be a network of assessment centres in England and Wales, as well as internationally for the written assessments. Kaplan have partnered with Pearson, who will be providing an extensive network of assessment centres for the written and computer-based assessments. There will be a smaller number of centres for the oral skills assessments to ensure consistency.

The SQE1 assessments must be passed in entirety before a candidate can attempt the SQE2 assessments. This is the only restriction on timings. The required elements can otherwise be taken in any order.

It is expected that candidates will complete their academic education prior to SQE1 and the majority of their qualifying work experience after completing their academic education and the SQE1 so that it is more informed.

The SRA has stated that there will be a limited number of retakes that each person can take before they will required to start that stage of the SQE assessments again in entirety, losing any assessment marks they have already gained. Currently this is to be two retakes (three assessments) over a six-year period.

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SQE results

The SQE marks will be sent to candidates, who can choose whether or not to share them with their future employers.

Objective data will be provided to organisations to enable them to see an individual set of results in context, which is intended to aid recruitment. The SRA has committed to maintaining consistent standards over time.

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Qualifying work experience

Prior to qualifying it is required that aspiring solicitors complete at least two years of qualifying work experience. This will be framed in a far more flexible way than the current training requirements, both in terms of the logistics and the outcomes.

There can be a maximum of four placements for the qualifying work experience but there is no requirement for a placement to be a minimum length of time.

The qualifying work experience will not be assessed. The SQE assessments will assess whether a candidate meets the required standard for entry to the profession.

The qualifying work experience will therefore need to provide candidates with opportunities to interact with clients, to see how solicitors work in practice, experience the ethical challenges that are part of this, and develop the competences set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence.

It is these competences that the SQE2 assessments will assess. The SRA is not going to set requirements for contentious or non-contentious work and candidates no longer need to work in a specific number of different areas.

The qualifying work experience can be carried out at a maximum of four separate employers, educational institutions or other organisations. Where candidates have non-standard working patterns, the organisation concerned will be expected to take a common-sense approach to deciding whether and for how long a placement should be extended for, or how much full-time equivalent work the placement equates to.

While the SQE1 assessments must be completed before candidates can sit SQE2 assessments, the required education and training elements will no longer be set out in stages.

It is not necessary to complete one part before moving on to the next. This will have the biggest impact on qualifying work experience, which will no longer need to be completed in a block immediately prior to qualification.

In practical terms, this means that experience can be accrued as a candidate progresses through their education, from university law clinics or summer work placements and as a paralegal or similar, so long as those placements have been signed off by the relevant organisation in accordance with SRA rules.

Each placement must be signed off by the compliance officer for legal practice (COLP), a solicitor working at the organisation or, if neither of these is available, another solicitor willing to sign off the experience gained, who has direct experience of the candidate's work.

The solicitor will not be required to hold a practising certificate but must be on the roll. Sign-off must confirm the length of the placement, the opportunities provided by the placement to develop the prescribed competences and that no character or suitability issues arose during the placement. COLPs and solicitors must satisfy themselves that the candidate has had the opportunity to develop the competences in the Statement of Solicitor Competence.

Where the solicitor signing off the candidate is outside the organisation in which the candidate works, additional safeguards are required: for example, undertaking a review of work done through a training diary or portfolio of work and receiving feedback from the person supervising the candidate's work.

Employers will also have expectations of what good qualifying work experience looks like and how arrangements for their candidates can best achieve that. Employers are free to set and manage their own training arrangements as they see fit, providing they meet the SRA's minimum requirements.

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Recruitment of candidates for qualifying work experience

Employers can continue to set their own requirements for those they wish to employ and offer qualifying work experience. This may be along the lines of educational requirements such as certain grades or topics covered at degree level.

Some employers may also wish to continue to sponsor their candidates to undertake specific legal education relevant to the work of the employer, akin to the present Legal Practice Course.

It is expected that most candidates will have completed their SQE1 assessments prior to beginning a formal training placement albeit that they may already have some qualifying work experience gained during their legal education.

The SQE1 results will give employers another element to consider when recruiting candidates alongside the candidate's usual grades and the SRA plans to provide employers with objective data to enable them to use this in their recruitment should they wish to.

Employers may also be considering recruiting for the apprenticeships route, particularly where they are subject to the levy. Firms who employ apprentices may recruit them direct from school before they have done any legal education and training and well before they attempt SQE1.

Employers should consider their responsibilities towards their employees and provide them with the necessary opportunities to access training and preparation for the SQE assessments.

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How employers can manage qualifying work experience

Employers can continue to make arrangements for the qualifying work experience for their candidates as best suits their business needs, so long as candidates are given the opportunity to develop the competences set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence.

There is no requirement for different areas of work nor for contentious and non-contentious work. It would continue to benefit candidates to experience different areas of practice in a structured way as well as having the opportunity to interact with clients and undertake specific pieces of work.

Just because a candidate comes to an organisation with some qualifying work experience does not necessarily mean the employer has to reduce the length of the training placement they offer if they do not wish to.

The employer has the right to set the contract with the candidate they employ however they choose and the SRA will not be involved in this process.

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Supervision and sign off

Qualifying work experience must still be signed off. The Law Society believes it is also both sensible and desirable that those undertaking SQE have someone to manage and supervise them. Employers should consider who is best placed to manage this process.

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SQE2 results

It is intended that in most cases the SQE2 will be taken and the results given before the end of the qualifying work experience period. This will enable employers to make an informed decision about which candidates they wish to keep on after they finish their qualifying work experience.

Employers will need to consider the position of candidates who may not have passed all the required SQE assessments within the normal two year period.

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Transitional arrangements

Should the SQE be introduced in September 2021, the last start date on any part of the current routes will be August 2021. The last academic year for the old system would be 2020/2021.

Anyone starting a qualifying law degree or GDL before 2021, or who has entered into a contractual agreement or made a non-refundable financial commitment to start a qualifying law degree or GDL before 2021 can choose to continue under the old system to 2032 or to qualify under the SQE system.

Employers can decide whether and when candidates should move over to the SQE so long as they do so before the cut-off date. Some employers have suggested they will move all candidates over to SQE at the same time to avoid having candidates on different pathways running side by side.

Employers will need to consider how they can meet the new requirements and ensure that they have suitable arrangements in place prior to moving to the SQE.

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What should I be doing now?

If you are an aspiring solicitor, there is no reason why you should not continue to follow the current path of education and training.

The current routes will remain valid until the introduction of the SQE, at which point you can continue along the path you have chosen under the transitional arrangements or move across to the new system at a point where you move to the next stage.

However, there are no exemptions available when moving across to the SQE system. Remember that your current or future employer may have a view on this and that you should make a decision based on your own personal circumstances.

If you are a provider of academic legal education you may wish to consider how your offering could incorporate the competences set out in the Statement of Solicitor Competence and the knowledge set out in the Statement of Legal Knowledge into your course.

If you are an employer engaged in offering a period of recognised training (soon to be qualifying work experience) or considering this, you can continue with your current arrangements until the introduction of the SQE, expected in late 2021.

At this point you can decide whether to continue your current arrangements under the transitional period or to swap the SQE route.

You may wish to look at the types of experience your candidates gain in relation to the areas they will be asked to experience and be assessed on under the SQE.

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Routes to entry when the SQE is introduced

The SRA has set out some of the ways in which candidates will be able to qualify once the SQE is introduced. This is a guide only and is not expected to be used as the only ways in which candidates can qualify. These are considered potential routes to entry.

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International jurisdictions/applicants

When the SQE is introduced it will be for all applicants to the profession, including foreign qualified lawyers wishing to re-qualify in this jurisdiction. It will replace the qualified lawyers transfer scheme (QLTS).

Any foreign qualified lawyers who have already taken the first part of the QLTS when the SQE is introduced will have a year within which to complete the QLTS and apply for admission.

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Summary of what we do not yet know

Many of the details of the SQE are still being developed. The introduction of the SQE is going to be a momentous change and it is crucial that the SRA gets it right.

The Law Society is supportive of the SRA taking the necessary time to fully consider the detail with the continued input of stakeholders. The Law Society continues to engage with the profession and with the SRA on behalf of the profession on the following areas.

This page will be updated as and when further details are solidified including those listed below.

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The confirmed start date for the introduction of the SQE

The SRA has stated that 2021 is the target date for implementation but it may be moved back, depending on how the development and testing of the assessments goes.

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Details of the assessments

The SRA began the development of the assessments for the SQE in summer 2018. They expect this process to take at least 18 months. During this process clarity should emerge but the whole picture may not be apparent until the end of this process.

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The cost of the SQE assessments and any training courses

On 8 November 2018 the SRA announced what is terming as indicative costs for the SRA assessments. For the SQE1 the fee range estimate is £1,100-£1,650 and for the SQE2 the estimate is a fee range of £1,900-£2,850.

The costs are based on an estimated 35 hours of assessment, including written tests, computer-based assessments and simulations such as mock client interviews. Until the development and testing of the assessments is completed, these costs cannot be confirmed.

The SRA have stated that the eventual fee may be inside or outside the estimated range. Factors that could change the costs include the length and amount of assessment and whether it is offered in both English and Welsh.

The SRA maintains that the SQE will be less costly than the current routes to entry, mainly due to the removal of the LPC as a required element.

In its decision notice of 26 March 2018 the LSB stated that it envisages that when the SRA makes the application necessary to bring the SQE into force, it will be able to provide detailed costs information. It also noted that the SRA Board will only sign off on proposals once it feel sthat the SQE assessments represent value for money.

The LSB additionally noted that one of the desired outcomes of the SRA's changes is to 'remove artificial and unjustifiable barriers' to qualification and that is difficult to see how this outcome would be achieved if the changes resulted in increased costs of qualification.

SQE preparatory training courses are yet to be developed so the costs cannot be accurately predicted currently. The SRA have indicated that, based on Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme training costs, the total training and assessment costs could be between £4,700 to £10,140. This is somewhat theoretical at this stage though. Some providers are looking at the possibility of rolling SQE1 preparatory elements into their existing undergraduate courses or into masters programmes that will attract funding, which may ameliorate some of the potential costs. It should also be noted that these courses are not required by the SRA as part of the route to qualification.

The availability of funding in the form of loans is an issue that has been raised by the Law Society as the currently available loans cover only courses that are a required part of the route into a profession.

Existing loans would not cover the SQE assessments as they have no course attached and would not cover any preparatory courses as they are not required. The Law Society has made the SRA and the LSB aware of the potential for negative impacts, particularly on social mobility, because of this and is continuing to look for solutions.

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Timescales for assessments in relation to other elements

The SRA has stated that there will be assessments run at least twice a year. We do not know when these will be, which will affect when the SQE1 will be available to sit in relation to the academic year candidates will be completing and how far into the qualifying work experience candidates will sit the SQE2.

The SRA has suggested that the academic study of law will prepare candidates for the SQE1 assessments and that the qualifying work experience will prepare candidates for the SQE2 assessments.

Other than a requirement to pass all parts of the SQE1 before moving on to the SQE2 assessments and a requirement that all elements are completed prior to entry to the profession, there are no restrictions on the order in which elements should be completed, save possibly for apprentices who must abide by the restrictions within the apprenticeship scheme they are following.

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What training courses will be available

During the development period for the SQE assessments, the SRA will share assessment materials as they can with stakeholders. This will enable education providers to begin developing any courses they wish to offer around the SQE as well as candidates to see what lies ahead.

Organisations seeking to recruit candidates will be able to determine what to expect when they arrive on day one and what they should look to provide in terms of skills training through qualifying work experience for their candidates ahead of the SQE2 assessments.

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The details of the non-compulsory licensing system for education providers

The SRA will no longer provide any quality assurance or oversight of education and training providers. Instead, the SRA intends to publish data about training providers' performance to enable candidates to make informed choices, and potentially operate a licensing system for providers who wish to use the SQE trademark.

In its decision notice of 26 March 2018, the Legal Services Board noted significant concerns regarding the SRA's proposed system for managing the licensing system, especially where there may be cause to revoke a provider's licence.

The Legal Services Board expects the SRA to address these concerns and monitor the licence and has said it may use oversight powers to seek assurance that the SRA is acting appropriately and proportionately to promote the regulatory objectives.

There is currently no compulsion for providers to use the SQE trademark and the SRA will have no power over providers who do not.

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Welsh language

It is not yet known whether the SRA will offer the SQE assessments in the Welsh language. Some stakeholders have requested that the SRA provide the SQE assessments in the Welsh language.

Universities in Wales are required to comply with the Welsh language standards imposed by the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011.

It is currently possible for a person to qualify as a solicitor having taken all their required assessments in the Welsh language and completed their period of recognised training in Welsh. The SRA is not bound by the same requirements.

The Legal Services Board considered the matter out of scope for the application approved in March 2018 but encouraged the SRA to continue to engage with the Welsh Language Commissioner on this matter.

The SRA has said that it will offer the SQE in Welsh provided it can ensure comparability of standards between the English and Welsh versions and that the cost of producing a Welsh version is not prohibitive.

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Useful resources

The SRA’s SQE pages
The Law Society’s Education and Training page
The Junior Lawyers Division’s SQE page
The Legal Services Board’s decision notice
The Legal Education and Training Review

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