The new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE): guidance for foreign lawyers

Qualification as a solicitor of England and Wales: an international qualification for a borderless profession

The international reach of English law and the English legal profession means that dual qualifying as a solicitor of England and Wales opens up a world of career opportunities.

English law is the global commercial law of choice by a significant margin. It’s chosen by businesses to govern their international trading, service and financing agreements.

English law provides the legal framework for most international commercial transactions.

Additionally, more international and commercial arbitrations take place in London under English law than in any other city in the world – with 90% of commercial cases handled by London firms involving an international party.

London is one of the most important business centres in the world, and the UK is home to a large body of world class, international law firms that offer multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdictional legal advice to international businesses.

Many of these firms also have overseas networks and offices and seek to recruit dual-qualified lawyers to bolster their existing expertise and international capacity, both at home and abroad.

Once dual-qualified, many lawyers will continue to work in their originating jurisdiction and use their solicitor qualification to help service clients there.

There are now numerous important business centres around the world in which many of the negotiations and transactions are governed by English law.

Consequently, there’s an increasing demand for locally based, dual-qualified lawyers who can provide English cross-jurisdictional as well as local legal advice.

Dual qualification as a solicitor of England and Wales

A new route to qualification through the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) will be introduced in autumn 2021 to replace the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS).

The introduction of a single, final, centralised qualification exam will bring England and Wales in line with the majority of other jurisdictions, improving the process of qualification.

The SQE will be open to candidates from all jurisdictions.

This is an improvement from the QLTS system, removing a previous layer of regulation that required candidates to be from jurisdictions recognised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). The SQE therefore offers more flexibility and will be open to more candidates from other jurisdictions.

In order to dual-qualify, lawyers from outside England and Wales can take the same final exams taken by solicitors who qualify domestically, by taking the SQE. 

The SRA will not require you to complete any preparatory courses before sitting the SQE nor to have any specific university degree.

However, taking an SQE preparation course may give you the best possible chance of passing the assessment. (see How to prepare for the SQE).

The SQE will differ from the previous system by putting candidates who take different routes to qualification on an equal footing, whatever qualification route they take (for example, foreign qualified lawyers, training contracts, solicitor apprenticeships, or equivalent means).

The tests are robust and enable dual-qualified lawyers to demonstrate that they have the same standard of knowledge and skill required of a domestically trained solicitor of England and Wales. 

Examination exemptions

If you’re a qualified lawyer from another jurisdiction, you can apply for exemptions from some or all of the SQE on the basis of your qualifications or experience.

An exemption may only be granted for a whole examination (not from individual questions within an examination).

To be eligible for exemptions, you’ll have to demonstrate how your professional qualification or professional experience is equivalent in content and standard to the particular SQE examination(s) from which you’re seeking exemption.

You’ll need to apply to the SRA to request an exemption.

You may still take the SQE if you have qualified in another jurisdiction but have not yet gained experience in practice.

There’s no requirement for qualified lawyers to undertake qualifying work experience under the supervision of a solicitor of England and Wales.

The extent of your work experience in your own jurisdiction may be taken into account in determining an exemption from the SQE.

If exempt, you will not be required to sit the corresponding examination components of the SQE assessment.

Both individuals and bar associations will be able to apply for SQE exemptions.

How to prepare for the SQE

The SRA will not require you to complete any preparatory courses before sitting the SQE.

However, you may consider taking an SQE preparation course to give yourself the best possible chance of passing the assessment.

The SRA has published an assessment specification for SQE1 and SQE2 that sets out:

Sample questions for SQE2 will be published in due course.

Candidates should ask education providers about the appropriateness of a particular training course before choosing how to prepare for the exam.

See the SRA’s list of SQE training providers

About the tests

The SQE is managed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and administered by the legal education and training organisation, Kaplan.

Kaplan does not provide training for the SQE. Training courses are available, but it’s your responsibility to make sure that any training course meets your needs.

The SQE will be divided into two separate tests: SQE1 and SQE2. You’re required to sit and pass SQE1 before progressing on to SQE2.

SQE1

SQE1 is in multiple-choice question format, and is made up of two exams which will cover:

  • 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

Ethics and professional conduct will be examined pervasively across the two assessments above.

SQE1 is available to take internationally at a range of test centres. Candidates will be allowed three attempts at the assessment which must be taken within a six-year period.

The first SQE1 exam is expected to take place in November 2021.

SQE2

SQE2 will be a series of practical assessments of skills. It will include assessments on:

  • legal research
  • legal writing
  • legal drafting
  • case and matter analysis
  • oral presentation/advocacy
  • client interview
  • attendance note/case analysis (linked to the client interview)

SQE2 will be similar to the Objective Structural Clinical Examination (OSCE) that forms part of the current QLTS application.

Details of the format and how it will be assessed are set out in the SQE2 Assessment Specification.

The first SQE2 exam is expected to take place in April 2022.

There will be 16 tests within SQE2: 12 written and four oral.

The written tests can be taken internationally at test centres. The SQE2 oral assessments must be taken over two days in England and Wales.

Like the QLTS exams, your bar association will need to provide an individual certificate of good standing.

In a small number of cases, an English language test may be required for those who are exempt from all or part of SQE2 and have not demonstrated their competence in written and spoken English through the SQE.

This test would be applied by the SRA after admission when applying for your first practising certificate.

How much does the SQE cost?

The total fee for taking both SQE assessments will be £3,980. The fees do not include training costs, which will vary depending on a candidate’s choices.

When the SQE is introduced in September 2021, these fees will cover:

  • SQE1 – £1,558 for ten hours of examinations testing candidates’ functioning legal knowledge
  • SQE2 – £2,422 for 14 hours of written and oral tasks testing both practical legal knowledge and skills, such as advocacy, legal research, and case and matter analysis

This does not include the cost of any preparation course(s), which will vary depending on a candidate’s choice.

Find out more about SQE training providers

Visit the SRA website for more information about the cost of the SQE

If you’ve started the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme (QLTS)

The QLTS assessments will continue to be available for one year after the SQE’s introduction for lawyers who have successfully completed QLTS Stage 1 (the multiple-choice test) by 1 September 2021.

Transitional arrangements from the QLTS to SQE will remain in place until 1 September 2022.

After the SQE is introduced and transitional measures end, all candidates will need to complete the SQE to qualify (subject to exemptions).

Visit the SRA website for more information about QLTS-SQE transitional measures.

Registered European lawyers with three years’ experience in England and Wales may also be eligible to apply for admission as a solicitor under the EU Lawyers Directive 98/5/EC until 31 December 2020.

At the end of the Brexit transition period, European lawyers will still be eligible to sit the QLTS and (from autumn 2021) the SQE.

However, if you’re a European citizen planning to move to the UK, you’ll need to check your rights to live and work in the UK.

The Law Society of England and Wales’ international work

Once qualified and admitted as a solicitor, you’ll be a member of the Law Society of England and Wales and will join a network of over 180,000 solicitors based all over the world – more than 9,000 of our members are based overseas.

We represent all solicitors of England and Wales, wherever they’re based. We have offices in Brussels, London and Cardiff.

From influencing law and policy through representation to regulators, government and the wider community, to offering training and advice, we’re here to help, protect and promote solicitors.

Wherever you plan to practise, within industry or a law firm, and no matter what jurisdiction you base yourself in, the title of solicitor is a mark of global excellence and passport to international practice. It will demonstrate your expertise and commitment to the highest standards of legal practice and will be recognised by clients and employers across the world.