In-house

SQE: how the new qualification exam will benefit in-house teams

Bhavisha Mistry, general counsel at Mawdsleys, focuses on the practical implications of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) for in-house trainees, the structure of the exams and how the SQE could make qualification easier.

I remember when I was aspiring to become a qualified lawyer.

I had no family or friends in the profession, and I had to both learn the trade and find someone to take me on a as trainee in order to qualify. The latter felt like a massive hurdle and one that only appeared to favour those with legal connections. 

I remember feeling a tad bit of injustice as I saw people get training contracts because their dad was a client of the firm. Or, perhaps because someone looked more like a lawyer than me (a 5ft, Asian female from the North West).

Training contracts were like gold dust and seemed to be reserved only for the elite.

Times are changing, and I'm beyond ecstatic that the new SQE regime has come into play.

What is the SQE?

The SQE is the new qualification examination for aspiring solicitors in England and Wales.

Unlike the Legal Practice Course (LPC), the SQE is not a course or study programme, but two sets of examinations. This is where thousands of pounds can be saved.

The SQE is being phased in from September 2021. Once the SQE examinations start in autumn, an individual can decide to qualify under the new SQE route.

As the LPC is being phased out, the existing LPC and training contract route can only be taken if the individual commenced a law degree, Graduate Diploma in Law or LPC on or before 31 August 2021.

They will then have until 2032 to qualify as a solicitor before the LPC and training contract route is turned off. The individual can still take the SQE even if they have commenced the LPC.

Under the new SQE route, there are four things the individual will need to qualify as a solicitor:

  • have a degree in any subject or a qualification or experience that is equivalent to a degree
  • pass both SQE1 and SQE2
  • two years' full-time (or equivalent) qualifying work experience (QWE)
  • pass character and suitability requirements

The SQE consists of two stages of assessments

SQE 1

This stage is designed to test the individual’s ability to identify legal principles and to apply them to client problems and transactions.

There are two functioning legal knowledge assessments, and each assessment consists of 180 multiple choice questions.

There are two five-hour examinations over two days

SQE 2

This stage is designed to test the individual’s core legal skills to show that they can perform the roles and tasks required by a newly qualified solicitor.

It involves a combination of oral and written assessments, taking around 14 hours over five half days

Find out more about the SQE assessments

Qualifying work experience (QWE)

The QWE can be done before, during or after taking the SQE. This means experience you've already gained can be banked.

QWE can be undertaken in up to four organisations, and not just in a legal firm. It does not have to be paid either, so a work placement or volunteering in a law clinic would count.

Many firms are likely to offer QWE outside the formal framework of a traditional training contract, such as paralegal work. However, your QWE needs to be signed off by a solicitor within the organisation.

If there isn’t one within the organisation, then an external solicitor can do so after reviewing the relevant QWE alongside feedback from whoever supervised the individual’s work.

Find out more about QWE

What this means in practice

Budding lawyers can get paralegal jobs and not worry about a firm giving them one of the few, coveted spaces on their training programme. This would save them the anguish that comes with completing hundreds of applications.

A couple of years’ practical experience working in a legal context plus the passing of the new SQE exam (which can now be done remotely outside of working hours, by providers like the College of Legal Practice (COLP)) can put them well on course for qualification.

For employers, this is chance to give one of your rising stars the opportunity outside of a formal training programme to get the employee qualified. Not only will this add gravitas to your team, but it will also show that you have heart and recognise the hard work and dedication that these individuals put into their career.

It would have meant so much to me, when I was an aspiring lawyer, for someone to have given me this opportunity.

I’m still eternally grateful to Weightmans for my training contract, but maybe I could have qualified earlier had the SQE route been available then.

After all, I had been ‘paralegaling’ since the age of 18.

Building a qualified in-house team

For the past seven or so years, I’ve been in-house and I have employed some very skilled and talented paralegals. This would have been a fabulous opportunity to build my qualified team from within.

Not only would my team be demonstrating the technical attributes of a solicitor on a day-to-day basis, but at the same time they would be trained and developed as lawyers for the business.

They would have been able to complete the educational part through remote training providers such as COLP, which provide preparatory courses at a fraction of the traditional LPC route.

As we continue to work and study remotely, this is an opportune time to develop our admin and paralegals and get them the qualification they deserve.

From a business perspective, it also helps to have qualified lawyers on the team, particularly with tasks such as negotiating contracts.

Above all, for me as an employer, I really would like to help those aspiring lawyers that work hard for me and show willing, desire and ambition.

I know it would have meant a lot to me when I was trying to get on the pathway to qualification.

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