The way you qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales is changing radically. Here Emma Jones, lecturer in law and member of the Open Justice team at the Open University talks Lawyer Monthly through how it could affect you.
What is the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)?
The SQE is the proposed replacement to the current most common route of qualifying as a solicitor. At present, most solicitors will have a qualifying law degree (or undertake the Common Professional Examination). They will then move on to the Legal Practice Course, followed by a two-year training contract incorporating the Professional Skills Course.
Under the new proposals by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) through their “Training for Tomorrow” programme, there will be no requirement for potential solicitors to have a qualifying law degree. However, to be admitted as a solicitor, you will still be required to hold a degree or demonstrate equivalent qualifications or experience.
There are two stages to the SQE. The first is likely to consist of a number of online tests designed to assess your legal knowledge, including the type of topics currently covered on a qualifying law degree. The second stage will focus on practical legal skills, such as writing, research, interviewing and advocacy. Potential solicitors will also be required to undertake a period of legal work-based experience of two years. However, it seems that the type of experience that counts is likely to be wider than at present, for example, it may include volunteering at a law clinic.
When and why will the SQE be introduced?
The SRA’s target date for launching the SQE is September 2020. They have indicated that they expect there to be a long transition period, so that anyone who commenced training under the current system can complete their qualification that way.
The SRA argue that a new route to qualification is needed due to a lack of consistency and transparency in the current system. They also suggest it could prove less costly. However, the proposals have been controversial, with bodies such as the Association of Law Teachers raising concerns over the SRA’s arguments, evidence and proposed forms of assessment.
What does the SQE mean to me?
If you are a current full time law student who is planning to begin their route to qualification directly after graduating, it is most likely that you will qualify under the current route. It may be that for some part time students, or graduates who decide to wait a while before training, they will have the opportunity to take the SQE. For prospective solicitors who have not yet begun their degree, they are also likely to take the SQE.
For those who may take the SQE, questions to ask will include:
- Am I certain I want to become a solicitor?
The Bar Standards Board has also been reviewing the current route to qualifying as a barrister. However, they have decided against making radical changes to the current system. In particular, they intend to retain the requirement that potential entrants either have a qualifying law degree, or undertake a conversion course. Therefore, if you are unsure which branch of the legal profession you are interested in pursuing, it could be that the best option would still be to focus on obtaining a qualifying law degree.
- Does my law degree prepare me for the SQE?
It is likely that some universities will review their law degrees and focus on ensuring that their students are prepared for the SQE stage 1 by the time they graduate. Some may even seek to obtain work-based experience for their students to count towards the two years required (although it is not yet clear how this will work). Other universities will expect their students to undergo separate training for the SQE, perhaps alongside their degree studies, or after they graduate. This in part reflects the fact that only a minority of law graduates go on to enter the legal professions and that legal education has many other uses. You will need to carefully consider what type of law (or alternative) degree you want to obtain and how this could affect your route to qualification.
- How can I develop my knowledge and skills to succeed at the SQE?
At the moment, there are lots of unanswered questions around the format and content of both stages of the SQE. However, over the next couple of years, much more detail will begin to emerge. It is important, therefore, for potential solicitors to keep up-to-date with the SRA’s proposals so that they can work out the most effective ways to ensure they can meet the new requirements.
Knowing what the SQE is and how it could affect you will be crucial for any aspiring solicitors from now on.