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The Arrival of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam

Big changes are coming for aspiring lawyers in September with the arrival of The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). All prospective solicitors will have to pass the exam to qualify. I take a look at what the new qualification involves, and how it will change things for those looking for a career in law, alongside the profession in general.

What’s set to change?

As most people already know, from September, if you want to become a lawyer, you will no longer be required to complete a law degree or law conversion and the Legal Practice Course (LPC). Instead, candidates will need to pass both stages of the SQE and complete two years of qualifying work experience.
With this is mind, law schools will stop offering the LPC. We will see new law conversion courses emerging alongside the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), offering a range of options to help students prepare for the series of exams which make up the SQE. With the SQE being exam-based, it doesn’t offer any education or training, hence why Universities and law schools are currently developing new courses to prepare students for it.

Two years’ work experience

Much like there is today, solicitors will still need to have two years’ experience under their belt before they qualify. However, this will differ somewhat from the training contract model we have come to know so well. The new qualified work experience (QWE) will be able to be split over different placements with up to four different firms or organisations, and it can be done before, during, or after completing the SQE. There may also be other forms of experience required, such as volunteering, or working as a Paralegal at a law firm.

The concern with this new format of work experience is that most law firms have previously done, and prefer to, train their own solicitors. It’s thought that, especially at the inception of the SQE, most junior lawyers will stay at the one firm to complete their two years’ QWE. So as such, it would remain the same as the current training contract system. The worry with this though is a potential divide. There will be those firms who favour the traditional training contract model and will not give chance to candidates who have come through having done only volunteering and Paralegal work.

Managing the transition to SQE

And what about candidates who have already started a law degree, the GDL, or LPC recently? It has been confirmed that anyone who has started any such learning prior to September 2021, can qualify through the old system and will have until as long as 2032 to complete their education and qualify as a solicitor. But if they want to, they can choose to switch and qualify via the SQE route.

If you are looking at a career in law and find working in a city law firm of interest, then be aware that City law firms may well require all candidates to take the SQE route from 2022. The reasoning behind this is to prevent streams of both SQE and LPC graduates appearing in the same trainee intake.
Should this be the case, there’s a strong chance that the LPC will come to an end long before the ‘old route’ officially expires in 2032, especially as the numbers of candidates sitting the LPC drop, and it loses profitability.

If you are considering starting any one of these legal courses prior to September, there is a significant transition period during which the traditional, established pathway will still be valid. But anyone starting a University degree from September, will be required to take the SQE route to go on to qualify as a lawyer. If you are a first-year law or non-law student, by the time you graduate you may have the choice between the current, LPC-based route or taking the SQE. Before making the decision, I would recommend weighing up the benefits of the SQE against those of the LPC and choose the route that best suits you.

The impact on legal recruitment

With the arrival of the SQE and then two years’ QWE thereafter, it will be a couple of years before we see the changes from a legal recruitment perspective. Today, when it comes to matching a suitable candidate for a role at a law firm, there are typical skills and academics which we look for. As recruiters, we pinpoint these alongside a candidate’s experience. Will this change once the SQE is embedded into the system? It’s more than likely.

But what’s also important to remember, is that law firms are changing. More recently, we have been thrust into a dynamic shake up of working systems thanks to the pandemic. Firms have had to get a handle on their IT and digital processes to be able to continue operations with nobody being able to work from the office.

The legacy of the pandemic in that respect is likely to remain, and firms will continue to evolve, with different roles being necessary. Yes, the traditional lawyer will always be needed, but so will many other new positions to enable firms to function profitably and productively in the modern age. Will the SQE be the answer to delivering all the talent law firms need in the future? We shall have to wait and see. One thing’s for sure, the arrival of the SQE is a good time for firms to evaluate their existing programmes for trainees and know what skills junior lawyers will need in a modern, law firm practice.

Contact Us

If you are unsure whether to take the SQE or traditional route, before qualifying as a lawyer, contact us for help and advice. Kyle specialises in helping lawyers of all levels across the country, with roles in private practice as well as consultancy law firms. If he can help you with your next career move, contact him to arrange a confidential discussion about your circumstances – kyle.bancroft@interlinkrecruitment.com.